Biblical Studies

The Day When Everything Goes Right

"Adam and Eve lived happily together in their beautiful new home. And everything was perfect --- for a while.

Until the day when everything went wrong."

(Sally Lloyd-Jones, in The Story of God's Love for You)

Everyone knows something is wrong with the world, that something is wrong with people. Despite what we discussed in Philosophy 101, no one I know believes that evil is an illusion. By whatever standard you measure right and wrong, something is terribly wrong. It'd be convenient to say evil is over there, in that person, and not here, in me, but I can't. "The line between good and evil," said Solzhenitsyn once, "runs through the human heart." For evidence, ask your family.

Some Christians speak of "total depravity," meaning that we are not as bad as we could be but that even our acts that appear to be good bear in them a seed of bad. Aware of my pride, for example, I humble myself; aware of my humility, I am touched by pride in my humility. What a dilemma! From heaven, holy laughter is heard, God chuckling quietly with me, shaking heads at my tragic and yet comic inability to do one completely good act.

Grace can't be appreciated apart from an understanding of how the world went wrong. Without understanding the Fall, we can't fully understand the Rescue. Without appreciating how deep and wide are the rippling waves of how the world went wrong, we cannot wonder well at the beauty of a world made right.

One of my associates at work said to me recently, marveling at what is wrong being called good and what is good being called bad, "The world is upside down." I nodded. "Yes, it is," I said, with a sigh. And yes it has been, for a long, long time, I thought. When he left, I looked out the window at the roof of blue sky, letting my mind carry me on past Moon and Mars and Pluto and Andromeda, out beyond the limits of our seeing, and thought, "But not for long. Or, at least, not forever."


Danny's Magnificent Defeat

In college I knew an upperclassmam named Danny. Danny was an amputee, having lost part of one arm above the elbow. Sometimes I met him on Hillsborough Street at Baxleys where he sat with his back to the wall having lunch and reading his Bible. He was always reading his Bible, on a first name basis with the women who served (only women then, all ancient), and always ready to talk about Jesus.

One day Danny gave me a small booklet on self-denial, on living unto Christ in all things. I could read down its short paragraphs and tick off my failures. Yet I carried it with me that freshman year. It was in my shirt pocket, a prickly reminder of my self-love, or laid on the corner of my desk in the evenings, whispering “conviction.” I can’t remember what it said, but I remember its feel, and it haunts me like a tactile memory.

Frederick Buechner once spoke in a sermon of the “magnificent defeat.” I think that’s what Danny was onto. Speaking of how Jacob wrestled with God, Buechner said “God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure.” I’m still learning that, but 39 years ago, Danny started me on that path to surrender, of laying down my life. I’m not very good at it, but it’s one battle I’ll be glad to lose.

Buechner leaves his parishioners with this: “Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” One day maybe we can say that losing our lives is wonderful. For now, it’s hard.


But

It’s difficult to define the conjunction “but,” but (there you go) we all understand what is meant when it is said. Children often hear it as limitation or restriction. “You can go out and play,” my mother would say, “but come in for dinner,” thereby putting boundaries on my play. “You can go to the park, wherever you like, “she’d say, expansively, “but don’t get in the water.” I felt tethered.

The Bible is full of “but.” The first one is also experienced by Adam and Eve as a word of limitation. In Genesis 3:3, answering the serpent, Eve echoes the prohibition spoken by God in 2:16: “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But God said. After a burst of explosive creative activity marked by the word “let,” as in “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), Adam and Eve stumble over the first “but,” over the first “shall not.” And yet the prohibitions are intended to maximize our freedom to be who we were fashioned to be. Not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil preserved our sinless state, where all we would have done would have been permitted and good.

But not only is “but” a word of prohibition, it can also be a word that heralds overcoming. The familiar John 3:16 ends with the promise that those who believe in Jesus “shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Psalmist says “My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:27). The long lament of the writer of Lamentations, a thesis of judgment, is broken by the antithesis of hope contained in vv. 21-23: “But this I call to mind, and therefore have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.”

My mother ended her days on earth under the pall of Parkinson’s Disease, a sickness which progressively restricts movement and lucid thought, tethered, as if God said “you can live and breathe and see, but you cannot leave this bed, this room, this place.” But who am I to say that this word of restriction did not give her soul a freedom she had never known, that she experienced her Father in a way that she might not have without that illness?

Joseph, after enduring all he did at the hands of brothers, all that was allowed by God to happen, could say “For it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:8). But he didn’t know that until later. And we don’t always know that until later, if at all. Yet we can live in antithesis. Faced by difficulty or challenge, with what seems like restrictions on our ability to play out our lives, we can say, “but God.”


Learning to Count

“We went through fire and and through water; but you brought us out to rich fulfillment” (Ps. 66:12)

Psalm 66 is one of thanksgiving, of God’s faithfulness not only to a particular person (“I will tell you what he has done for my soul”) but for a community of people (“he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man”). Just as all particular acts of faithfulness point back to the great deliverance of God’s people in the Exodus in the Old Testament, all particular acts of faithfulness in the present point back to Jesus, to his death and resurrection, and even further back to the Exodus. God has delivered and is delivering an exiled people from Egypt, from Babylon, from Rome, from America, from the bondage of sin. He is making a people for Himself.

In the meantime, though, there’s fire and water. James says “Count it all joy, brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Ja. 1:2). He doesn’t say it IS joy, much less that it is happy, which would be nonsense, but he says we count it as joy, meaning, I think, that we can look beyond the moment to what it produces.

I just wish there was an easier way to get there. For some folks, that kind of counting comes hard. You have to learn to count that way.

My mother, who had Parkinson’s Disease, pretty much laid in a bed in a nursing home for two years. She was a believer. She wasn’t angry or bitter. She didn’t take refuge in self-pity. At the same time, she wasn’t happy. I do not know how she did that. Maybe in her better moments she was able to count it all joy. Maybe being so near the door of eternity she could, at times, glimpse a life come. I hope to count like her and then be “brought [ ] out to rich fulfillment.”

The Psalmist here speaks of real trials, of being brought into the net, of having a crushing burden laid on his back, of the Lord letting men ride over his head, of all the things God let happen to him. And yet he still blesses God, “because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!” (v. 20).

Frederick Buechner says "I only know about myself — that often it’s in my own darkest times, or out of them somehow, has come a treasure, a glimpse of something beyond or deep at the heart of suffering." All to say suffering is universal and yet individual, unique to each person. God comes to each of us in His own way. To some of us He has more to teach.

The psalm is one of promise and challenge. Can we bless God when he lets us suffer? Will we trust His work in fire and water?


Trusting the Author

Probably the most vexing problem — one insoluble to the finite human mind — is why God permitted the entrance of evil into the world.  Actually, it predates Creation.  Why did God allow a being He created, Lucifer, to have the choice to lead a revolt against Him?  I don’t know.  No one does.  And yet Christianity has the best answer for it.  It doesn’t pretend that evil is illusion, doesn’t attribute malevolence to God, and doesn’t limit his sovereignty to the end that He is no longer God.

I once wrote a story about Henry, a mentally retarded man. I allowed his main caregiver, his mother, to die prematurely, exposing Henry to possible re-institutionalization.  I let Henry suffer some consequences of that evil and began to allow Henry to deal with the ramifications of that, making what may prove to be a bad choice so that he could learn and grow in ways he could not were he sheltered.  In allowing Henry to react to the bad thing I allowed to happen, in fact purposed to happen, I allowed him a measure of freedom to make choices.  And yet I superintended the whole story.  I think it a better story because of that, because of that freedom to be who I allowed him to be.

You might think me a bad author for writing such a story. You might think Him a bad Author too. But, it is a better story, and for some, at least, it has a good ending. That’s some kind of an answer to the question of evil.

Frederick Buechner says Christianity offers “no theoretical solution at all.  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene — not even this — but that God can turn it to good.”

The Author put down his pen at some point, dove into the story, and let Himself experience it all.  He even superintended his own death so that The End is, after all, good.  So, despite what happens between “Once upon a time” and “The End,” it is a very good story.  The real question is: do you trust the Author?


The Prodigal Me

In the last few weeks I have hear three sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One was on the older brother, another on the father, and yet another on the younger son. These are familiar perspectives. In the past, I have even heard mention of the “prodigal God,” a strange juxtapositioning of the words, and yet it heightens our awareness of the point: God’s grace and love is extravagant to the point, that in the world’s understanding, it is unmerited — which is the whole point, really.

Frederick Buehner took up the parable in a book on preaching, one of my favorite of his, entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel As Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. He sees in the well-known parable of the prodigal son the comedy of the father’s love for his returning son, but he also notes the comedic blindness of the older brother. The older brother can’t see the wonderful absurdity of his father’s love because he is, “…trapped by [his] own seriousness.” This is not about law, the “ought,” about the kid getting his just deserts or the faithful older brother getting his party, but all about grace. It’s not about repentance on the part of the wayward son, as that’s not spelled out. That’s the crazy comedy of it. Buechner says:

“The boy is back, that’s all that maters. Who cares why he’s back? And the old man doesn’t do what any other father under heaven would have been inclined to do. He doesn’t say he hopes he has learned his lesson or I told you so. He doesn’t say he hopes he is finally ready to settle down for a while and will find some way to make it up to his mother. He just says, ‘Bring him something to eat, for God’s sake. Bring him some warm clothes to put on,’ and when the boy finally manages to slip his prepared remarks in edgewise, the old man doesn’t even hear them he’s in such a state. The boy was lost and is found again, and then at the end of the scene what Jesus as teller of the parable says is ‘They began to make merry’ (Luke 15:23). Merry, of all things. They turn on the stereo. They break out the best Scotch. They roll back the living room carpet and ring up the neighbors.”

The old man is an old fool. In the blindness of love, he completely overlooks all of his son’s foolishness, his wishing him dead, his greed, his frivolity, and his drunken, sorry life and acts if if he did nothing wrong, as if he were justified.

Which is the whole point, really. He treats him as if he had been faithful and obedient, thought he hadn’t.

I doubt there is more to suss out of the parable. It’s already been worked over by the likes of Edwards, Spurgeon, Nouwen, Piper, and Keller, just to name a few. But, nevertheless, I took it for a walk around my backyard, took it out to the edge, and looked over the fence, considered the orange-flagged stakes marking the boundary of mine and theirs, turned back and looked at my house, lit from within. And then I knew what was missing in the parable.

Me. The prodigal me. For every prodigal thought, every unwarranted distraction, every going my own way, every attempt to have it all now, and every selfish move. There’s not one going home but thousands.

I walked back, trailed a hand across my gray cat who meowed something like “I could have told you that”, laid a hand on the door handle, turned, kicked my shoes off, and settled into home. I’m home, thank God.

“Blessed is he who he is not offended that no man receives what he deserves but vastly more,” says Buechner. “Blessed is he who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.” Blessed am I to be the brunt of that joke, to have a Father who runs to me, laughing.

 

 

 

 
 

Sacrifice and Blood

Every Summer we fight a battle with flying insects in our home. They come in all shapes and sizes, from errant fireflies needlessly signaling their way in the bright of our rooms, to various beetles and gnat-like flies crawling up lampshades, meandering down the walls, suspended from the ceiling, circling in orbits around our heads, and whirring around our ears. While we are called to love our neighbors and my definition of neighbor is expansive and challenging, I don’t yet love these neighbors. At least not here, inside my home.

How they intrude is unclear. The doors are not left standing open, as we slip in briskly and close them behind us, as if something is chasing us.  Windows?  Shut, as air conditioning is on.  In fact, in our middle-aged home where gravity is driving all things downward, some windows will not even open anymore.  One day the front of our home may be Suess-like, with off-center windows, mis-shapen and sad, windows about which real estate agents speak of as giving the house“character.”  Seals around doors?  Tight, seemingly impermeable.  So tight, on one, that I have to lean on the door to get the dead-bolt to click.  Click?  Thud, rather, the satisfying sound of safety.  My paranoia? Real. It is as if our walls are porous, allowing the insect world to march right in, and we are without defense, without arms.

One way of making peace with these small intruders is to see them as a metaphor, a common-defense mechanism for me that sometimes works.  In fact, everything in life is a metaphor for something else and, as Dorothy Sayers once said, “all thinking is analogic,” that is by analogy.  But let’s talk about that some other time, as there are more pressing matters to address.

I imagine myself explaining to a group of rapt listeners in some theology class or, at least to my two slightly bored cats, feigning interest, about the imperfect nature of our theological constructs and how they must bend and be malleable enough to be shaped by the Word, as they are our constructs, not God’s, our approximation of His truth, not infallible Truth, how the pesky insects are the annoying passages of Scripture that don’t seem to fit our perfect theological world, one we think immune to serious attack.  

Wham!  “Die, sucker!”  Yuch.  I wipe a smashed beetle off my hand.  I’m failing at love of neighbor, I’m afraid.  I hate these bugs.  I’m sorry.  Sometimes metaphor doesn’t work.  Sometimes it takes a death. Sometimes it takes sacrifice and blood.  But wait. . . that’s another metaphor.


The Final Secret

An imperative like that contained in Leviticus 20:26 has always been a little scary to me. First of all, it’s Leviticus, which is a book foreign to most of us, full of bloody sacrifices, strange holy days and feasts, and ceremonial washings.  Even dietary restrictions.  Sometimes we don’t know what to do with that, so we just don’t read it.  But it’s also off-putting in that I know I can’t be holy, so it reminds me that I will fail, that I have repeatedly failed, that I fall far short of holy or perfect or righteous or just “pretty decent guy.” I’m not, not if you knew me like I know me.

But today in reading this I considered this not as exhortation but as promise. What if rather than saying “Get with it and get your act together and act like a Christian,” God is saying “I have made you holy, have taken you for my own, and will bring to completion the good work I have begun in you?” Which of course, in Christ, he has. The rest of the verse shows that it is He who has done the separating, as God says “I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” It’s not our initiative but His.

Frederick Buechner said something like this about another hard-to-obey verse of Scripture. Buechner said “THE FINAL SECRET, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us—loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us. He has been acquainted with our grief.”

And so, in the end, the promise is that we too will be holy.  Beloved, chosen, treasured possessions of God that we are, we will finally become who He intended us to be: Holy.


Finding Rest

The first sentence of J. Oswald Sanders’ little book, A Spiritual Clinic, begins: “Strain and tension characterize our age.”  That was 1958, and yet the observation is timeless. That chapter is headed by an epigram, a simple truth, Jesus’ assurance that “I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The subtitle of the book is one of those overly longish ones preferred in those days and limited to unread dissertations now: "A Suggestive Diagnosis and Prescription for Problems in Christian Life and Service."  Somehow I can’t imagine that title flying off the bookshelves at Lifeway.

"I will give you rest."  It's difficult to rest.  A friend of mine used to say that his favorite thing to do was to go out into his backyard and lie down in the grass.  Sometimes he would fall asleep there.  I couldn't do that.  I imagine spiders and ants crawling over me while I sleep, or worse, a bug flying into my open mouth, an army of Lilliputians tying me up, and so on.  But for him rest was a state of mind.  He wasn’t worried.

I don’t think you can will yourself to rest.  It comes indirectly, a byproduct of God-centeredness.  He stays our twittering heart, our chicken-little mind, and says, simply, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), and yet it's difficult to be still.  It takes work to rest; it takes a deliberate turning Jesus-ward.  I have been so agitated at times, so restless, that I cannot even read scripture, can barely pray, and so then I repeat any Bible verse I can remember (any will do) and pray something like "help help help."  Like a lullaby, I am eventually stilled.  And one day, having laid down in the rest of His words, I will lie down in the grass like my friend, care-less.  That may take some work though.  That may take some time.


Holy Subversion

In the last scenes of The Life of Pi, the narrator, having made an astounding trip across the Pacific in the company of a Bengali tiger, tells two contrasting stories about his journey.  Asked which is true, he asks “Which do you prefer?” A more post-modern ending could not be written.  No one but the sociopath really believes that history and its truth — whether personal, societal, or world-shaping — is just a matter of what you prefer to believe.  Statements to the effect that “That’s your truth” or even statements about self-identity in contravention of the obvious (as in a human being saying “I am a dog”) are at best an acknowledgement that our perception of reality is shaped by many factors, among them place, upbringing, and circumstances, and at worst just a mask for self-idolatry, when I am god and what is true is what I say it is, and if I have power, I can make others submit to my definition of reality. This is the pulse of our culture. And yet I am aware of how easily I am infected.

I believe in what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth,” and yet for the sake of peace and acceptance I allow assumptions about the good and true to go unchallenged.  I don’t mean to suggest triumphalism or any sense that I fully know the truth, but I know that finding truth means beginning with God, with the Logos at the heart of all reality.  

Leslie Newbigin, a long-time missionary to India, recognized the Gospel’s claim to absolute truth.  Newbigin wrote that:

“We have to proclaim [the Gospel] not merely to individuals in their personal and domestic lives.  We do certainly have to do that.  But we have to proclaim it as part of the continuing conversation that shapes public doctrine.  It must be heard in the conversation of economists, psychiatrists, educators, scientists and politicians.  We have to proclaim it. . . as the truth about what is the case, about what every human being and every human society will have to reckon with.  When we are faithful in this commission we are bound to appear subversive to those who believe that the cosmos is a closed system. We may appear to threaten the achievements of these centuries in which this has been the reigning belief. In truth we shall be offering the only hope of conserving and carrying forward the good fruits of these centuries into a future which might otherwise belong to the barbarians.”

Newbigin echoed words I heard from Os Guinness nearly 20 years ago when he spoke of our task as one of “holy subversion.” Christ-followers cannot make our bed in this culture. We are a nation in exile. We tend to our families, train our children in truth, rescue those we can from the barbary of radical autonomy, testify to what is true for all, and wait. . . for restoration, for a Kingdom without end.  We can have no illusions that we will gain acceptance, yet even among a pagan culture there are good works to do.  Newbigin said that “[t]he incarnate Word is Lord of all, not just of the Church. There are not two worlds, one sacred and one secular.  There are different ways of understanding the one world and choice has to be made about which one is the right way, the way that corresponds to reality, to the reality beyond all the show that the ruler of this world can put on.”

Subversion?  Thinking this way is a challenge to me, and I fear I am not up to it. But God is.


Slackers in Need of Grace

When I was 14 I got my first real job working as a "stock boy" in a local department store. It was an all-male crew, and we were a bunch of pimply-faced adolescents with a horizon no farther than the next pretty girl. Trucks carrying lawn furniture, mattresses, box springs, housewares, toys, and other stock would roll to the curb outside Receiving, and we'd hoist much of it on our skinny shoulders and carry it in past the bird-like and bespectacled Edna and her gaggle of female clerks. It was backbreaking work sometimes, but when you are 14 its a matter of your manhood and, besides, "backbreaking" is a middle-aged term and not one for adolescents.

We worked hard, as I said, sometimes, and Scott and Billy, all the time. Billy, an ox of a kid, wore green army fatigues, a white t-shirt, and a rope for a belt every day, like Jethro Bodean. Billy was generally good-natured if dim, unless a comment struck him wrong, and you never knew what would set him off, yet Scott could yank his chain and restrain him. Billy would say something profound every now and then, like cotton-patch proverbs, usually prefaced with “My daddy said. . .”, but I was blind and deaf then and couldn’t appreciate what I heard. Scott sauntered like the body-builder he wasn’t. He rolled his t-shirt up to hold a pack of cigarettes, Fonzi-style, only he was decidedly uncool, his machismo no doubt a mask for some deficiency we'd learn about later in Psych 101. He liked me, perhaps felt sorry for me, under-muscled wimp that I was.

The main form of humor for Scott and Billy was bodily noises, jokes of which they never seemed to tire. We tired of their labor. They carried boxes of chairs on their backs and seemed delighted when trucks would roll in. There was little slack in Scott and Billy. They worked hard all the time. The rest of us talked to girls, laid around in the stockroom drinking Cokes, hid from the bosses, and tried out new recliners, doing our best to do as little as possible, minimum effort for minimum pay. At the end of the day however, we punched the clock and all pulled the same number of hours, and at the end of the week received the same paycheck that Billy and Scott received. It doesn't seem fair, considering what slackers we were. We received what we didn't deserve.

In the parable of the Workers in the Vineyards, a landowner hires men in the morning and puts them to work, and then hires more later, and then yet more near day’s end. Some worked all day, some half a day, and others perhaps only a couple of hours. Theoretically, it wouldn’t have mattered if one worked only five minutes. In the upside-down economy of Jesus, all the workers were paid the same thing, as if they had worked all day. In this most un-American story, Jesus draws a picture of a countercultural realm where we don't get what we deserve, where a just-now believing thief on the cross inherits the kingdom of Heaven just like the most faithful of disciples, where, slacker that I am, I punch in to Heaven same as Billy Graham and Mother Teresa.

Pastor David Zahl describes it this way:

"Christ paints a portrait of a kingdom where reward is not a matter of output or merit but grace, where we are valued according to our presence rather than our accomplishment, where all the boss seems to require of his workers is their need. . . . What we learn is what we never quite learn, the message that is as bottomless as our need for it: God does not relate to us on the basis of our results, or of how well we stack up against others, but on the largeness of his generosity, the gift of his Son, who 'by his one oblation of himself offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world."

But in the kingdom of this world, of course, grace is limited, meted out as it is by fallible humans, and so sometime in my second year of employment, I was canned. The assistant manager, Mr. Smith, let me go one day, and I drove home feeling dejected and friendless, as all my peers worked at the store. Looking back on it, I was living on cheap grace, and I endured a season of discipline. Only to return. My good friends father, who was senior assistant manager, re-hired me. Lesson learned. A turning. Call it repentance.

I didn't become a star employee. Not long after, I backed the delivery van into a house, chipping a brick and mangling the doors. We dropped and damaged a new sleeper sofa we were trying to fit into a double-wide, and Robby and I, huffing and puffing and sweating, with an angry owner and a bulldog straining at its chain, learned some new ways to curse. Buffing the floors one night I carelessly let a floor stripper (the machine, not the dancer) ram a display cabinet and damage some merchandise. But I learned to flip burgers in the snack bar, ring up customers, put up stock, and clean toilets (when Leroy the janitor was on a binge), and I spent a lot of time in Accessories and Sportswear talking to women, many the age of my mother or older, and I learned something about working and standing on your feet all day and raising kids and being faithful. In that forgiving place, slacker that I was, I grew up a little.

I now know it by another name: Sanctification. That ever-deepening realization that is rooted in the fact that I am getting what I don't deserve, that my need for Jesus is getting bigger every day, that the best work I do is resting on the perfect work He has done.

And Scott? A voice crying in the wilderness, like John the Baptist in redneck garb, standing outside Receiving, cigarette in tow, challenging me to repent of my lackadaisical ways and work a little harder, so I can fail even more, so that I can realize my deep, deep need of Jesus who forever employs and never lets go.


An Antidote for Acedia

“The Bible is full of evidence that God's attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us--loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is ‘renewed in the morning’ or, to put it in more personal and also theological terms, ‘our inner nature is being renewed everyday’.”

― Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work

Acedia, as Kathleen Norris writes about in The Cloister Walk, is what the medieval monks referred to as the “noonday demon”, that heavy omnipresent sense that nothing matters, when you are numb to pain and joy, listless, depressed, and indifferent, when joy shrivels up and seems incapable of resuscitation. By God’s grace, I have not known such pervasive grayness, but I have touched its hem.

I experience such feelings at times when, on waking in the morning, in the twilight, I sigh at what the day may bring. In these times, the story I hear is one of monotony, sameness, and weariness. In her children’s devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, Sally Lloyd-Jones paints a picture of just what this is like. The picture is of a young boy sitting up in bed, head bowed and pensive, with an ominous, swirling dark cloud of thoughts pressing in. Her point is that we often experience unhappiness because we are listening to ourselves rather than talking to ourselves. Talk back to the darkness, she says, and “remind yourself of what is true, and who you are, and who God is and what he has done.” And it is in the literal and spiritual darkness that, when you can see only the murky outlines of the lamp, the chair, or the somnolent cat, or when you can’t see beyond the day, that you remember scripture, if you have any imprinted on your mind, when you take one single verse into your thoughts and roll it over and over, examining it from all angles, anchoring your thoughts to it. A verse like “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you” (Deut. 31:8, NLT).

One morning this past week, I did just that, anchoring myself in a verse I first memorized, to my recollection, in my college years, the one that begins with “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, in all your ways acknowledge him” (Prov. 3:5-6). That refrain drowned out the minor key I awoke to, called me back to truth. Yet another morning I lay there for 30 minutes allowing an incessant litany of burdens to darken my thoughts. It takes an act of the will. It takes Spirit-enabled music that allows me to skip to a better track, a brighter and truer song. That’s not acedia, I know. That’s the skirt of acedia. And yet the remedy is the same.  Scripture is the primary antidote.

But there’s a powerful if lesser tonic that Norris calls attention to, and that’s the natural world. It's what happens when I get up and walk outside. Fifteen years ago, post-surgery and struggling with anxiety, that was about all I could do. Arising in the dark and listening to the rhythm of footfalls, to the breaths I took, even to the beat of my heart, I reminded myself that I was alive and might just live. I let my mind rehearse memories and reflected on the imprint of life in a particular place and moment, about the fascination of moving water, smooth rocks, and tadpoles under bridges, about wading in the pool under the railroad overpass as a child with my grandmother looking on, about the numerous friends I had, about how the hinges of my personal history had, inexplicably and wondrously, all swung open to God. And in that rhythm, in that focus on the particular, on the minutiae — purpose, direction, meaning, and thankfulness would well up. Joy would awaken. If God is fixed on little things, if His eye is on the sparrow, then so should I be fixed. Love the particular and you will see the love of God.

One of the most profound and impactful pieces of writing I have ever read is one by Frederick Buechner, one I read in a devotional of his writings called Listening to Your Life. It's about an an ordinary morning and his awakening to its life, to his life. I imagine he too awoke that morning rehearsing the cares of his day, yet arising he began to listen to what was happening:

"Creation is underway. Breakfast is underway. Steam from the kettle is fogging up the windows. The cat mews to be let in out of the wet. Getting her bathrobe hooked on the knob of a drawer as she tears by, my wife throws up her hands: 'Is it going to be this kind of day?' With my ear to the radio, I try to catch what the weather will be. Somebody is crying while somebody else says it is her own fault that she is crying. We break fast together, break bread together fast, with the clock on the wall over my wife’s head tick-ticking our time away, time away. Soon it will be time to leave for school. Soon enough it will be time to leave."

The antidote for acedia? The timeless words of God. The God-loved particulars of creation. Attention that grows love. Love that breaks out in joy.  Walking in Word and World with eyes wide open.

 

 


A Christmas Song For All Year

OITFSome Christmas songs are really suitable for listening year round.  One from this season that I recommend is Jason Harrod's "Out In the Fields," from his Christmas EP of the same title.  As the EP dropped December 18th and is an digital only, indie release, you may have missed it unless you are a Harrod fan.  While the EP is an enjoyable and fresh mix of hymns and  carols, such as "Angels From the Realms of Glory" featuring some buoyant trombone playing, and this one original tune, it's worth picking up just for latter, which will join my Christmas play list for years to come.

"Out of the Fields" has several memorable lines, built around questions by a faith-challenged, melancholic narrator, but the bit that seems at its center is this:

O Lord Invisible where are you hiding?
Where do you burn and whose way do you light?
Out in the fields we are watching and waiting
We need a Redeemer to come make us right

Or even this earlier re-phrasing of it:

Light inaccessible where are you shining?
Where do you burn and whose face do you warm?
Out in the fields we are ready for finding ---
smoldering stars waiting to be reborn

The song contains a longing not for just the coming of a Jesus who can remake us and make all things right.  I like the questions, which are not unlike those the Psalmist asked.  I like the honesty of the narrator, riven by doubt and faithlessness.  And I like the hope, driven home by a driving electric end where the instruments cry the inarticulable.  I'll play it all year.

You'll find it here.

 


The Voice That Makes the Earth Shake

"'Well done,' said Aslan in a voice that made the earth shake.  Then Digory (the son of Adam) knew that all the Narnians had heard those words and that the story of them would be handed down from father to son in that new world for hundreds of years and perhaps forever.  But he was in no danger of feeling conceited for he didn't think about it at all now that he was face to face with Aslan.  This time he found that he could look staright into the Lion's eyes.  He had forgotten his troubles and was absolutely content."

(C.S. Lewis, in The Magician's Nephew)

There is a particular place on the hardwood floor in front of our refrigerator that creaks when you stand on it, creaks greatly. It's annoying. I know because one day shortly after its inception or, at least after I noticed it, I stood on it rocking back and forth - creak, creak, creak- transfixed, somehow, until my wife said "would you mind stopping that?" I stopped. I guess it annoyed her too.

Just for a moment, a fleeting moment, the thought occurred that maybe that creak was only the beginning of the end. The floor would eventually crack and collapse, carrying half the kitchen down with it into the abyss, my savings account following. But that's silly, I realize.

Or is it? It's that same feeling you get when you are driving down the road and just for a moment you wonder if the wheels might come off the car, or the axle break. Or that fleeting thought that a parking deck might collapse over your head. An elevator cable break. The Government be unable to pay its debts. The Walking Dead be cancelled. (I'm not really worried about that last one, but someone is.)

(You do get that feeling also, don't you? Don’t you?)

I realize this is how neuroses form. That if you dwell on such thoughts, you begin to be obsess and engage in irrational behavior about which you cannot be dissuaded. You begin avoiding elevators, parking decks, or even driving. Or going to the fridge. Which might not be a bad thing.

Now, grant you, neurotic is not pyschotic, at least. But then, it might lead to that, couldn't it? Couldn’t it?

I look around in my home office where I am writing this bit of paranoia, and I see that there are probably 200 books and as many CDs, in heavy bookcases, as well as my rather weighty desk, and not to mention my not slight mass, and a file cabinet, and a lamp, and. . . and. . . and while I know that contractors know something about building houses, I think about all that pressing down on a few perhaps splintered two by fours of wood, and the third floor and roof pressing down on that, and I wonder if it's possible that it might. . . well. . . break.

Sometimes, albeit rarely, these kinds of things are suggested to my pliable mind, and if any take root, anxiety blooms. And yet the Apostle Paul says “Have no anxiety about anything,” a command that seems nigh impossible to obey, if indeed it is a command. As Frederick Buechner says about Paul’s admonition, “In one sense it is like telling a woman with a bad head cold not to sniffle and sneeze so much or a lame man to stop dragging his feet. Or maybe it is more like telling a wino to lay off the booze or a compulsive gambler to stay away from the track.” We humans seem bent to it, predisposed to worry. Sick, lame winos, we are.

And yet what Paul tells us to do is to pray, in everything God bless him, and that as consequence, our hearts and even our minds will be kept in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t say the house won’t collapse or the economy go south, but he says Christ promises to keep us in a way that passes understanding, in a way that we can’t be gotten at no matter what.

Which is another way of saying that I’m really in trouble, or will be regularly, but He will be with me and guard both heart and mind. And in this Paul, imprisoned while writing such words, might have even smiled at the irony of his imprisonment: behind bars, guarded, unable to leave, and yet in Jesus, better guarded, free to stay in Him no matter what and even walk out of prison should God will it.  Or not.

Next time the floor creaks, and the Enemy makes a suggestion, I’ll pray.  I might also smile at the absurdity of the idea that he can get at me, guarded as I am in Jesus.  I'll remember I am kept in Him quite apart from what I can do with my thoughts.  Besides, eventually He'll fix the floor and everything else and say to me, "Well done," and a quivering I will go, shaken but loved.


He Climbed Up in a Sycamore Tree

We all know that Zaccheus was a wee little man. Anyone who has come up through Sunday school and vacation Bible school has that song indelibly stamped in memory, so much so that the truth of the story lacks its punch, becomes trite and worn. It need not be.

He climbed a sycamore tree. Ever wonder, why a sycamore tree?

Scripture is so very particular when it could easily not have been, and all the sermons that I have heard have focused on the important but general principles of Zaccheus’s curiosity, his sin, his repentance, and the fruit of that repentance. The tree appears in the backdrop as a mere prop to boost a diminutive man into the sight of Jesus. No matter that it is a sycamore. And yet when we are told that “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16), it made me wonder if there is a reason that we are told that it was a sycamore.

The sycamore tree was a common tree grown for its edible figs. It was often planted along walks because it had low-hanging branches. and large palm-sized leaves. So it was a tree in the right place for Zaccheus — convenient, easy to climb, and able to conceal a wealthy tax collector.

In her book, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells notes the legend that the leaves of the sycamore tree (a tree which actually derives from the oriental plane tree brought home to Britain by early crusaders), were believed to have been Adam and Eves’ first garments. This is not scriptural, of course, as it appears Adam and Eve were unashamedly naked until the Fall, when they were covered in animal skins and not leaves by God. No doubt the leaves came about in Britain because prevailing mores dictated some covering for the actors playing Adam and Eve in medieval religious mystery plays. And yet this large-leaved tree might have been chosen to remind us that though we may seek to hide our sin, there is, in the end, no place that Jesus cannot see and no one that he cannot reach — even a derided outcast like Zaccheus. And no one to cover sin but Jesus.

Wells also notes that Muslim poets said that in Islamic gardens the plane tree’s broad leaves, “fluttering like prayerful hands, led the other trees in praising God.” While metaphorical, the image does resonate with Isaiah’s vision of trees of the field clapping their hands (Isa. 55:12) and the Psalmist’s expression of Creation’s joy, with the rivers clapping and hills singing (Ps. 98:8). And so, in the end, what for Zaccheus was a place of covering for sin from which he could peer out in security at the latest Hebrew prophet, became a place of praise. Indeed, many commentators believe that because Zaccheus came down from the tree and received Jesus “joyfully” (Lk. 19:6), he believed while he was yet in the sycamore, even before Jesus’s request to lodge with him.

We’re not told, but perhaps as the smallish man descended, a wind stirred in that tree, and the hand-shaped leaves fluttered, and 2000 years later, the story of the wee little man still ripples across our lives. And the leaves of sycamores still softly lead in praise.

Whenever I hear that story now, I hear it fresh, and enfleshed. . . with a sycamore tree.

 


Life Among the Mean

“It is inbred that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest)

No doubt the modern language rendition of English missionary Oswald Chambers' classic devotional uses a word other than “mean” to describe streets and people, as our understanding of the word in today's less literate culture is limited. Mean streets are not streets full of unkind people, and mean people are not just the unkind, but Chambers has a much richer meaning in mind: streets which are mean are those walks of life which are common, humble, undignified, and plebeian, which are inconsequential and insignificant. In short, little.

He is talking about the quotidian, about mundane, ordinary life, life that attracts little attention or notice. My life, and probably yours. "Little" lives.

I used to think God wanted me to do something big. Now I know he wanted me to do something even bigger, to live exceptionally by His grace in the ordinariness of each day, a day in which I pay bills, make phone calls, write a letter, do taxes, clean the garage, attend church, answer emails, and clean dishes.

To the extent I do these things for his glory, I have lived an exceptional life. There are no little people.  We are God's images, little Christs, and that's not little.

 


Finding Your Place

When my daughter was in first grade, one of the things we did as a part of a merit badge was to catalogue all the trees and flowers in our backyard. Before then I was vaguely aware that we had pines and hardwoods, but I couldn't have told you anything else. I didn't know them. But when we finished our walk around the yard, armed with an Audubon Guide to Trees, I felt like I was more at home, like I better knew my place.

In speaking about our new life in Christ, Oswald Chambers says that "The first thing God will do is force the interests of the whole world through our hearts. The love of God, and even His very nature, is introduced into us. And we see the very nature of Almighty God focused in John 3:16 --- 'For God so loved the world. . . .'" The breadth of this claim, which is not anthropocentric, is clear from the Greek for world, kosmos, that is, the human and non-human universe. So this astonishing claim means the love of God for the entire creation, the universe, is poured through our hearts.

Yet the universe is an abstraction, too big for even the large-hearted Mother Teresas of the world to love, much less the small-hearted like me. Start with a tree. Start with the place where you find yourself. Walk around the neighborhood, or just next door, and ask God to help you love your place and people. Be mentored by a book like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by her deep attention to a mountain and stream by which she lived. Slow down. Drive to work with the windows down (or, if you're lucky, the top down) so that you hear and feel the place around you, so you can let life in your four-wheeled world. Cultivate Dillard's attention to the peopled places we inhabit. I am so poor at this, so near-sighted.

This is a precursor to the "faithful presence" the authors write about in The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community," a book which seeks to root ecclesial life within the mutual concerns of the neighborhood, within "the new commons." They propose that the myth of individualism and "living above place" have fragmented the church. They call us back to what Chambers speaks of, the channeled love of Christ for the world, starting in our place. One of the ways the authors of The New Parish suggest doing this is by "learning to listen to what it is, not what you have assumed it to be or even what you want it to become." So we might ask who are we, and what is this place? To know the answers to those questions will likely reveal potentialities, as in who are we in this place, what could we in this place become?

That gives new eyes to someone out walking. And indeed the authors of The New Parish counsel a prayerful walking in the neighborhood, an attention to what is there, a gratefulness, and a lifting up of the place and people to God. I confess that in all my walking I have done too little of this, having been more on a pilgrimage of the mind than developing a love for my place, more intent on getting somewhere, both literally and mindfully, than in taking the time to stop and talk to my neighbor, to listen to the stream under the bridge, to pay attention to the mockingbird.

We have schooled ourselves in living above our place, flitting about in a virtual space of social media, not landing in the dirt of human experience. And for Christians, this has not been of much concern, at least not in its placelessness. Isn't our home, our place, up there in Heaven? Not exactly. As Len Hjalmarson reminds us in a new book, No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place, "the Biblical story is not about going to heaven when we die: it's about heaven and earth becoming one: God's purposes in creation being fulfilled. The final great image in the bible is of that planet-sized garden city descending to (and merging with) earth, accompanied by the words, 'God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them' (Rev. 21:13 TNIV)."

So, while out walking, we better be mindful. The place to which we go will bear in it all the true and good and beautiful of this place in which we dwell. If I won't stop for the trees, won't take time to know them, it's doubtful I'll stop for my human neighbors either. God help me be mindful, and not only for a merit badge, this time.


Can You See the Real Me?

When I was in college anomie was a big word. In Sociology 101 we talked about the reduction of people to numbers, the depersonalization of the arena-sized classroom, the sense that you were nothing but a cog in a gigantic wheel going nowhere. That was the Seventies, and we were reeling from Watergate, gas shortages, the Vietnam war, and the advent of disco (particularly the latter).

Honestly, as a freshman, I was not thinking such lofty thoughts. As I sat in the back of the biology classroom with one million other students, a mere speck in the eye of the academy, squinting to make out the professor down front, I was thinking about my girlfriend who broke up with me. Or my next move, as in girl move. In retrospect, I was preoccupied with my own concerns but not thinking much about my image, my tribe, my brand. I didn’t have an IPhone (the Dark Ages, people), watch particular TV shows, or identify myself by what car I drove, food I ate (Vegan, locally-sourced, gluten-free), or brand clothes I wore. I may have been self-centered (no, I was self-centered), but I do not recall making decisions based solely on how I would be perceived but by what I wanted. I wanted to figure out who I was, but I wasn't consciously trying to build an image. I was just. . . me. . . whoever "me" was. The court of public opinion of me was really, really small.

The world has changed. In the latest volume of The Mockingbird, in an article entitled “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind the Who,” David Zahl notes that it “used to be that only museums and boutiques were curated. Today, people are curated, lives are curated.” Even as I say this, I’m tempted to think of how you perceive me. Intelligent? A little hip? (I wish.) Bookish? Thoughtful? I try not to think about such things, and yet they creep in. Honestly, can you blame me? We’re swimming in a tidal wave of identity-preoccupation. It’s not so much the question of who I am but who I want you to perceive me to be. And that’s a particular kind of self-absorption that we need a way out of.

I only know one way. And Zahl nails it. He says the moment of grace comes when we stop asking "Who am I?" and start asking "Who are you?" That Godward focus leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, the kind where, as Tim Keller says, we not only do not care what others think, we do not even care what we think of ourselves. As Keller says in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, "True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself." Because all that matters is what Jesus thinks of me, and He declares me holy (because of Him) and beloved. No condemnation. Case closed. Love alone that will not let me go.

There's no direct path to humility, to a God-shaped identity, because when you get there, you won't be thinking about getting there, because I suspect you will have already forgotten yourself. But for most of us, issues of identity rear their head every day, and we have to confront them by doing what Keller says: we have to re-live the Gospel every day, every moment. And if you catch yourself obsessing over perceptions, laugh at the foolish project you have embarked on and live in the love of Jesus. Stop staring in the reflecting pool of self, and meditate on the Source out of Whom our identity flows.

Once I was carrying one of my favorite singer-songwriters to his hotel after a gig. I blathered on about one of his songs and how much it had spoken to me. I expected him to be grateful, to respond warmly. He said nothing. I was looking for appreciation. But now I know. He had forgotten himself, and he did not want to be reminded, did not want to begin to think he was a gift to the world, that he was who I thought he was. He was performing for an audience of One, and it wasn't me.

I want to be like that.


My Shadowed Self

“Dear Lord, please make me want you. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want you when I think about you but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be fulfillment.”

(Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)

Even in her prayers, Flannery O’Connor used the grotesque (cancer) to illuminate grace — here, the grace of being possessed by God, of being filled with a desire to know Him. In her recently published prayer journal, kept by a youthful O’Connor from 1946-47, she gives us insight into a person desperately seeking God and yet aware of her shortcomings: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing the moon. . . . [W]hat I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” She was throughout her life keenly aware of the shadowlands of which C.S. Lewis wrote.

I would like to reduce the footprint of my self-shadow, and yet it’s a difficult thing to do. Even as I write this, the shadow looms, as I wonder what you will think of it or of me, or if you will read it. Like humility, there is no straight line to selflessness, to becoming so opaque, so self-emptying, that the moon of Christ shines through. Yet if, as Picasso said, “art is the lie that tells the truth,” then deliberate indirection may be the key to a good and artful life. We become more transparent by focusing not on what we do, as there are all kinds of ways to call attention to self and congratulate ourself, but on Who we see. Here are a few suggestions for reducing your shadow by repositioning Who you see.

Meditate. On Scripture. On a verse or a phrase. Forget about memorizing it. You’d only congratulate yourself for doing so. Forget the commentary. The point is not knowledge. Just let the verse or phrase roll around in your mind for a day or week or more and see what happens. I have taken to copying out a verse on a 3x5 card and carrying it with me, in my shirt pocket, enjoying the tactile sense of its presence with me, stiffly provoking me. (You could also write it on your palm or, to use an Old Testament example, tie strips of it around your wrists.) Let it seep into you. Let it touch you.

Take a walk. Not a power walk. Sans music. Just consider the largeness of what is around you. When I walk, I like to touch things - an oak tree rough, a signpost smooth and cool, leaves brittle and crumbling. Strange, I know, but again the tactile brings home the fact that I am a bit player in a much larger story being told. And yet, the verse in my pocket is elevating, proclaiming "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come."

Pray wildly. Follow every detour and tangent the mind takes. Bring no agenda to prayer but simply pray where you are, where your mind takes you. It may not be the way to always pray, and yet it has the salutary goal of helping to liberate us of a self-congratulatory discipline. I assume the pathways of my mind are superintended by God, so this kind of prayer is a way of remaining in conversation with Him, on his agenda. Or even if they are distractions placed there by the devil, they are repurposed by being swept up into the conversation with God.

So, there you have it. You thought about a verse. You took a walk. You prayed a distracted kind of prayer. Brother Lawrence you may not be. You can't escape the self shadow, as you can even congratulate yourself on these small things. And yet, over time, you may become a little more transparent and your shadow a little less long.

Me? I'm congratulating myself on the great advice I just rendered you. I can only laugh at Grace that has to do it all, that, ultimately, must save me from myself. There is no technique to gain humility but staring at (fixing our eyes on) Christ, praying O'Connor's prayer: "Dear God, please make me want you." Indeed, save me from my shadowed self.

 


Thieves Like Me

In Rod Dreher's memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, he begins with a story of his sister Ruthie, seven at the time, and himself, five.  He had done something particularly awful, he recalls, and his father had told him to go lie down on his bed, a precursor to one of his "rare but highly effective spankings."  He knew he deserved it.  He knew that it would be perfectly just for his father to spank him.  But then, just as his father entered the room, Ruthie ran into the room, sobbing, and threw herself across him: "'Whip me,' she cried, 'whip me!'"  He recalls his father turned away, and Ruthie left, and he remained, wondering what had just happened.  And he says, "Forty years later, I still do."

All the elements conducive to a life of crime were present in me from an early age.  Marry opportunity and rationalization and it becomes easy to break the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."  Or any commandment for that matter.  As the elements were being passed at Holy Communion this past Sunday, I was meditating on my sin, as I suppose it best to do, a breviary of sin, in fact, and yet this one sin occurred to me: I was a thief.

At 12 my friend and I were hired to deliver a free weekly newspaper in our neighborhood.  On a good day it took maybe two hours to cover our route.  This thin weekend chronicle we bundled up and were supposed to place on each doorstep.  In the beginning, we did just that: we rode our bikes up driveways, disembarked, and carefully placed the paper on the doorstep, tucking the corner under the doormat to keep it from blowing away.  For this we were paid, as I recall, about two dollars each, a not insubtantial sum for a 12-year old in 1970.

One of the first things we discovered was that not everyone was excited about getting this weekend guide.  One overweight man in a wife-beater t-shirt, sporting a five-o'clock shadow, threw it back at us.  "Get that damn paper out of my yard."  Dogs nipped at us.  People asked us not to ride our bikes in their yard.  We'd find the paper, unfurled, careening and flapping down the sidewalks of streets with names like Fernwood,  Robinhood, and Cornwallis, like literary tumbleweeds.  "Hey, isn't that our paper?"  Yes, of course.  Of course it was.  There was little positive reinforcement from the recipients.  Pretty soon we had to face it: no one wanted our little paper.  It was a blight on our corner of suburbia.  A rag.

From there it was a slippery slope.  We deleted a few houses.  Didn't want it anyway.  Then we knocked off a whole quadrant of the neighborhood.  Too many dogs.  We got sloppy, lobbing papers into yards, driveways, side porches, in shrubs.  Hey, it's in the yard, and they can get it.  Pretty soon we're burning through the entire route in less than 30 minutes, stuffing a few excess papers here and there in trashcans.  Surplus.  Before you know it we're only doing the street we live on, as far as the creek that winds under our street, and one day at the creek we find ourselves toting pretty much the whole load of the papers down to a sandbar, digging a hole, and burying them, thinking we were doing everybody a favor, after all, cleaning up the neighborhood of trash, taking care of it in an unsightly and biodegradable manner.

That's how I became a thief.

We were caught, of course, our livid employer giving us a tongue-lashing and requiring immediate repayment of a day's wages.  "I trusted you.  You let me down."  Only a day?  I broke into my coin collection, wrested free the two dollar bill from its special holder, as well as a few collectible quarters, and paid the woman.  And the guilt settled in. And at that point in my life I had no where to go with my guilt.

That one sin is indicative of how tainted I am and have been, how bent toward wrong I am, and how easily I can go wrong.  But Sunday, at Holy Communion, when that youthful indiscretion rears its head, I realize again that I have a place to go with that guilt, guilt not assuaged by repayment of some of what I stole.  The defect is far deeper than that.  Total depravity.  Every single thing I do is touched somewhere by impure motive.  More wrongdoing was to come.  But in the body and the blood, my guilt is paid for, Christ substituting Himself for me, getting the just deserts for my thievery (which goes far deeper than a few newspapers).

Substitutionary atonement is one of those awesome and awful tenets of Christian faith.  God's perfect love and perfect justice meet at the Cross.  We like to quote the Apostle John's well-known maxim that "God so loved the world that he sent his son. . . (John 3:16), and yet God also ordained for Christ a suffering and death that we really can't fully comprehend in its horror.  As Michael Horton summarizes, "[H]is love had to comply with his justice.  The punishment that Christ bore was not an arbitrary act of revenge, but a fulfillment of the standard that God had established in creation: namely, life for obedience, death for disobedience.  The cross was a satisfaction of the claim of justice, not of dignity or irrational anger."  And justice is fundamental to the nature of God.  He cannot act unjustly.  What kind of God would not uphold justice?

Ruthie's Dad, confronted by the sacrificial love of his daughter,  turned away.  I understand why he chose not to uphold justice.  I suspect I would do the same and for less an appeal than Ruthie made. And yet God did not turn away from his own son.  He upheld justice through Christ's substitution for His people.  That's awesome and awful, a justice fully swallowed up in love.  Ruthie's Dad, perhaps, turned away because he knew, in the end, that Christ died for his son, that justice would be upheld, that the little death his son died that day would be swallowed up in the victory of the Cross.  

All to say, there is great hope for thieves like me.

 

 


Once Upon a Time. . . and They All Lived Happily Ever After

Many years ago I wrote a short bit of memoir --- probably no more than 600 words --- about an evening walk with my best friend of 14 on the night of the day my father died. I recall writing something about how we lay on top of my father's station wagon, under a star-punctured sky, as we awkwardly tried to say something to each other, and then, concluding that we couldn't, did what we always did: we walked.  What I wrote about that night probably wasn't profound, and yet it seemed that way when I wrote it. That remembrance seemed to capture the experience in a way I have been unable to since.  Unfortunately, I lost what I wrote, and I have never been able to reproduce it.  It was a very little "death," of course, compared to my larger loss, and yet still I lament the loss.

 At least one good contribution of post-modernism has been the attention to narrative, to the stories that we all live in and out of.  For the disenfranchised, it may be a narrative of loss; for elites, a narrative of power and, yet, soul-gnawing hollowness.  For me, it could have been just a narrative of loss and the fallout of loss in the life of a young man, but by God's grace that story took a different turn.  To use Frederick Buchner's Gospel trinity, it was a tragedy undone by the comedy of God's grace, one which continues to hold out the (true) fairy tale of resurrection and restoration.  That's a story I share with Buechner, one he has spent his whole life pondering. He summed it up like this:

"The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later."

So, I am grateful to have a story to share, one that will stay with me always, one in which is hidden the seeds of new life.  I can say "Once upon a time. . ." and have something to say.

The alternative is painful to consider.  On that fateful day when the Israelites abandoned the worship of God and asked Aaron to make a golden calf for them to worship, God warned Moses that "Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book" (Ex. 32:23). This "book" is God's reality, the story He is telling.  It's a reality referred to variously throughout scripture as "the book of the living" (Ps. 69:28), "the book" (Dan. 12:1), "names. . . written in heaven," (Lk. 10:20), and "the book of life" (Phil. 4:3).  The point: There is one Author of life.  There is one story.  If you aren't part of this tale, you are lost.  You have no story.

Now that is frightening.  To lose your own story is not a little death but a big one, a negation of life.  And it need not be. Because this is a story which you can opt into, to which you are invited.  Imagine that: characters who in some mysterious way actually get to participate in the story, who can stand up on the page and address themselves to the author, who, incredibly enough, can by their petitions move the pen, shape the story.

At 14 I had little notion that there was any larger story being told that involved my life, that I had any significant part.  My father died.  I did not know what to do or say about that.  I went back to school. I worked.  I looked for acceptance.  I didn't know what it meant.  Isn't that true of so much that happens to us?  Yet, as you get older, you get glimpses of the larger narrative, of a God who imagined, made, and saved and who will deliver and remake and restore, who will tie all the subplots together in one final resolution, who will one day finally close the book, and say. . .

"They all lived happily ever after."  And we will.  Will you?

 


Varied Grace

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace. . . "

(1 Pet. 4:10)

I tripped over this verse today.  I don't know if I have just never noticed the language of this in the ESV --- "varied grace" --- or whether the idea of God dispensing grace in a different manner to each person made me recoil.  I don't think of God as giving differently, though I know it to be true.  Some have many gifts; some, one.  Some have ten talents; some, one.  From a purely human, limited perspective, this appears unfair.  Yet it's another opportunity to trust God, to defer to His wisdom in apportioning grace, to rest in the one grace given to us all: salvation, freedom, deliverance, redemption, sanctification, restoration, glorification --- a golden chain.  Put like that grace doesn't seem varied at all.

I have spent a great deal of my life wishing I had some other gift or gifts, some other dispensation of grace.  When I was a teenager, I wished I had athletic ability.  In college, I wished I was social.  In law school, I wished I wasn't (in law school, that is).  (That has nothing to do with the topic, but I couldn't help myself.)  I never got to be a rock and roll musician either. (My high school friend's father, who was a decent jazz musician, and who suffered my guitar chops, crushed me when he told me I should keep my day job.)  I fancied myself a record mogul for a time (a broke one).  I got to be a lawyer, yet some days, particularly when I stand in a courtroom before judges, I feel like a kid pretending to be a lawyer, that somehow I duped the Bar and everyone else into letting me practice law.  Oh, and I never got to be a superhero.  I  couldn't lift a car, stretch myself, throw web and swing from trees, or run fast enough in my P.F. Flyers to fly.

Yet, these days I soar on varied grace.  I am free from all the sin that would weigh me down, cut free from a ball and chain of regret, with no penance to pay.  I have learned the grace of community, the gift of introversion, the superhero grace it takes to be husband and a father, the blessed gift of long, persevering friendships.  A first Fall leaf that I once may have stepped on and crushed without thought I now kneel to and examine, full of wonder, take every created thing and look through it to God. The kid who dresses up as a lawyer is just growing young, that's all, dropping the husk of expectation and pretense and just playing through. 

So, varied grace.  It doesn't matter.  I have all I need.  Don't you?


How to Build a Booth

The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, was intended as a reminder of the Jewish nation's 40-year pilgrimage in the wilderness and, to a larger extent, to their very pilgrimage on the earth, to their status as aliens and strangers.  When Nehemiah mentions this feast after leading the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem (Neh. 8:13-18), surely he remembered the estrangement of his exile --- his and that of his people.  The feast had a visible, very tangible symbol: the Jews built fragile booths from tree boughs and such, and lived in them for a period of time.  Reading about this I sometimes wonder what visible reminder God's people can now construct to remind us of our exile, to help us hold lightly to the world while still putting down roots and building houses and living among Babylon.

In Craig Bartholomew's Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, one of the things he argues is that the Christian's obligation is to image heaven (our place of lasting, perfect placement) by working to build a home here that not only points to, but in some mysterious way is already a part of, the greater home to be realized in the fullness of time.  This doesn't conflict with our sense of estrangement, our exile.  Rather, to build a home, literally and figuratively, prefigures our heavenly home.  It posits hope --- some significant continuity between this world and the one to come.  The tension we feel between place-making and exile is a good one: we hold lightly to what the world offers, yet we take all that is good, true and beautiful and adopt it and build upon it.  We seek to make our homes, our cities, and our country prefigure the one to come, and yet we come to the task humbly, realizing that we cannot erect heaven on earth.

How does my home prefigure Heaven's home?  For one thing, it is bounded.  It is protected from the elements and yet lets in light.  For another, in and of itself it has differentiation: special corners, a favorite chair, a stairwell, a study.  It's not all the same, or shouldn't be, but fits the contour of the land and of the lives of the people who dwell in it.  And it has a spiritual and physical foundation: it is literally rooted in earth, built on Christ. Bartholomew says more and, if you have a mind for it, you can take it up, but I have to get on with life, and place, and loving the world the way Christ loves it.

Jesus said he would prepare a place for us.  I, for one, look forward to that.  In the meantime, I attend to my own place-making by listening to what is around me and taking up all that is virtuous. The first step is learning to see and listen --- and that's a good part of what Outwalking is all about.

Oh --- if I start building a booth in the backyard, don't judge me.  Join me.


Singing in the Rain

Part of the human task is to discern how our lives are a part of a larger story, to trace the outlines of the plot, to envision a meta- and mega-narrative.

Yes, but it is raining, and I need a nap.  That's just too deep and too abstract to think about right now.

Outside my window, a lone bird, perhaps a chickadee, chirps.  He or she is not thinking of meta-narratives but just living the story, though the Psalmist does say that "The eyes of all look to you,/and you give them their food in due season./ You open your hand;/you satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Ps. 145:15-16).  Even a lone bird has desires, has expectations, is dependent on One.  Even a bird (I can't help myself) is a part of something bigger than the next worm.

I need a nap because I was awake at all hours last night listening to rain and thunder, and then more rain and thunder.  It was a night of naps punctuated by rumblings, and with the window open I could hear it all, hear the drama build, the plot thicken, until that one final moment when in one huge thunderous boom it passed.  One more page in an unfolding story, maybe no more than one more word in a very lengthy story, inexplicable in its interlocking subplots, full of tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, and yet it moves on.

I don't take it for granted that I can think this way, that I can conceive a universal in all the disparate particulars of life: cars that need repair, bills to pay, sickness, washing dishes, getting up and lying down, meeting someone and not meeting many others.  And on that last point I like to tell the story of the time I was dining an a cafe in Tucson, Arizona and, on excusing myself from the table, crossed paths with a server who called out my name, first and last.  He was in my fourth grade class, not even a good friend, and I had not seen him in 34 years.  Amazing.  He said "You look the same."  He lied.  But the point is that I wonder what that plot detail was about, of what story that was a part.  Maybe it happened only so I could tell you about it, to marvel at the (I believe) divine providences that occur every day.

That's the kind of thing that rises to the surface when you lie awake at night, when the clock reads 3:39 and you listen to its hum, when you are hyper-attuned to the settling of the house, like some ancient creature sinking back down on its haunches long after its occupants have retired.  At least long after most have retired.

I don't know what much of it means, but I can trace a central theme in this huge story, the theme of grace, of a Writer who regards with kindness every character He creates, who cares even about one lone chickadee singing in the rain.  The Psalmist said it: "The Lord is faithful in all his words, kind in all his works" (Ps. 145:13).  To love what you make is one thing, but to be kind. . . that's something else.  What author is as tender with all his creations as this One?  What author, much to the grief it causes him, allows his creatures to participate in writing their stories, heaping injury on themselves and others at times?  What author writes himself into the story, becomes like his creations, honors them and dies to Himself for them?  If I don't like the way a story is turning out, I put it down, even throw it away.  He didn't.  He honors his promise that he would be faithful to his people, and though many of his creations are written out of the story there are those who stay to the end, who are kept to the end.

It sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? And yet if the Author of Life wants to write a story that asks us to believe that there is Someone outside the Story who is superintending it, certainly he can.  So many people live disconnected, disjointed lives of seeming randomness, passing from scene to scene with no sense that there is any larger meaning.  No author, no meaning.  No plot, no purpose.  And so it is a gift to find yourself in the biblical narrative.

I am Adam, created and fallen.  I am Israel, distracted and scattered, gathered and redeemed. I am Paul, a blind man given sight.  I am the paralytic of heart, given the legs of faith.  I am John of Patmos, seeing things I don't fully understand.

I am a lone chickadee, singing in the rain.  Expecting.  Hoping.  Waiting.  Singing.

 


Starving Phantoms

“I think I have been learning about faith as long as I have lived in fear. Maybe longer. Whenever I am afraid, it is because I am also believing in something unseen, and like faith, it too requires an agile imagination. Both seem to have a way of growing bigger depending on how much attention we give them although one seems fed by truth and goodness while the other is fanned by worry and dreaded ‘what ifs.’”

(Jo Kadlecek, in Fear: A Spiritual Navigation)

My 89-year old aunt has been seeing things, we think.  First, there were the boys walking around on her roof and whispering under her window at night.  Never mind that she hears poorly, too deaf to notice feet padding around on shingles, shushed voices plotting on the exterior.  Never mind that its been over 100 degrees on the roof, a literal "hell" of a playground for adolescents.  Then there were gypsies in the trees, a girl with a bandanna, weeping.  And now, "wharf" rats slinking through her side yard, "big as a cat."

When I tell her that no one else has seen such things, that maybe it is her imagination, she can only say "Well, I'm not crazy."  After a couple phone calls at 3:00 AM and 26 calls to 911 in a month and a half, I am not sure about that.  Yet, thankfully, things have died down.  There are no more emergency calls, as she has concluded that the police are incompetent.  She stopped bothering the good neighbors, as "those people" think she needs to be "evaluated."  Yet for all her bellicosity, I think she is just afraid.  Phantoms have come to roost in her mind.

I doubt that anyone lives life without at least one fear, without some episode of fear.  Whatever their focus -- death, penury, or a nameless anxiety --- every fear seeks to occupy our every waking moment, fill even our dreams.  Dwelled upon, they grow, hulking over our day, a shadow over every move.  In its worst case, as with my aunt, the fear actually takes shape, becomes a visible, audible phantom that haunts, that preoccupies and lives on the edge of consciousness, waiting for nightfall to manifest itself.

Better let Christ be the one who haunts.  Jesus says that "perfect love casts out fear."  The only antidote for fear is a steely focus on Jesus.  As the Louvin Brothers concluded on their classic song, "Weapon of Prayer," --- "Still the helpful hand above, on the weapon made of love/And against him none on earth prevail."  You cannot fight fear dead on or banish it with words.  We fight it with Word and prayer, by going to the one who has already won.

I have been ravaged by fear before.  In fact, I don't have to think long to find something worth fearing.  Oddly enough, on occasion I have felt a sharp pang of fear on behalf of civilization itself, that everything that mostly functions will suddenly collapse, that we will drown in debt, that a hate-mongering ayatollah will unleash a dirty bomb on us, that the ice caps will melt and our great cities drown.  Possible, yes, but irrational, a seed planted by the sower of fear, the destroyer of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Word and prayer.  A focus on Jesus.  But there is one other thing: a remembrance of His faithfulness in life events, a going back to the memorials we set up in memory for when God delivered us from some peril of body or mind, for when in His good providence He allowed suffering and yet drew us to Himself and delivered us in the midst of it.  The Psalmist repeatedly remembered God's past faithfulness as an assurance of His faithfulness to come.  So too should we.  As Jo Kadlecek says, "[F]ear is simply a spiritual memory lapse, a forgetting that God loves a human's soul enough to protect her."

The boys are on the roof.  They whisper outside our window.  There are gypsies in the trees.  But Christ slays the phantoms of this world.  They die in His light.  Feed on Christ and starve the phantoms.


Super 8

Whyte

In 1971 urbanist William H. Whyte, mentor to Jane Jacobs ("The Death and Life of Great American Cities"), began the Street Life Project in New York City.  Whyte and his team trained Super 8 cameras on plazas, streets, playgrounds, and other small urban spaces and simply watched, via time-lapse photography, what people actually did.  What they found led to changes in the way we view the social settings of cities.  Whyte, the consummate participant observer, found that what people actually do and not what they say they do is the best key to the success of a place.  His observations seem, at times, remarkably unprofound, like common sense, and yet it was a common sense bereft of urban planners driven by notions of rationality and efficiency.  People were attracted to small spaces with high densities.

But better than the wisdom gained from such observation --- novel at the time but now more common if institutionalized (think web-cam, movement studies) --- are the black and white photos contained in the book that recorded his observations, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.  (There is also a one hour color film of the study here.)  The people.  Remember that this is 1971, the waning of the counterculture, pre-Watergate, and, judging by the photos, a time when life was of a slower pace, even in New York City.  African-American children ride bikes and play games in the middle of 101st Street in East Harlem, a couple kiss, a woman reads, people sunbathe.  Men watch women,  a woman and man (him in a checkerboard suit) clasp hands in the street, an older man points to the sky, a well-dressed  woman looks on.  People sit wherever there is room to sit --- on the ledge around St. Peter's church,  on a simple round bench at Rockefeller Center, or on the steps at St. Thomas church where the sun warms the stone.

What Whyte did was apply the power of observation so often used to study wildlife and natural areas to the urban landscape. In so doing, he unintentionally discovered more than just how people used small urban places.  He demonstrated the great diversity and richness of human social life.  Well-heeled shoppers, street people, children, the elderly, hippies, construction workers, office workers, policemen, and merchants all show up in his Super 8.  And he noticed something very important about place: "When you study a place and chart it and map it, you begin to acquire a proprietary right in it.  You do not reason this.  Obviously, you have no such right.  But you feel it.  It is your place.  You earned it."  He even noticed that he developed this same regard for people as he considered their patterns of behavior, sensing that "[t]hese are my people out there."

I would say it is much more than Whyte postulates.  Built in our very nature is a longing for community and for place, one that stems from our being made in God's image.  The triune God exists in community; we best image Him when we exist in community, not as isolated individuals.  Our very embodiment means that the body and place has deep meaning for us.  We are more human, and more humane, when we deeply connect with a people and a place.

In a new book, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement With the Built EnvironmentEric Jacobsen notes that "[w]e live in a culture that has become convinced that there is no longer any connection between geography (where one lives and the distinctive qualities of that place) and our experience of community."  We think place becomes irrelevant when social technologies foster relationships irrespective of place.  And yet I suspect a strange and disembodied anomie takes root when we live and interact primarily in front of monitors and television screens, with IPads and smartphones, and we begin to feel hollowed out and detached.

Whenever I travel one of the first things I do in a new place is to leave my hotel and walk in it.  These walks are always memorable, at least to me, however pedestrian they may seem to others.  I stop in a coffeeshop in Milwaukee and sit and listen to the conversations around me, see the somewhat different dress and features of the people that surround me.  I note street names, see people lounging on the grass and looking out their windows, reach out and touch brick and mortar, railings and trees, historic buildings and bridgeworks, relishing their physicality, their permanence.  And for a moment, like Whyte, I sense that the place is mine and the people, my people.  I am the Super 8.  But more than a mere recorder, I am outwalking in my place among my people.

God did the same.  He made a people and a place.  He walked in the cool of the Garden.  And throughout the history of the Hebrew people, he was never far way, covenantally bound with his people and their land, moving in and among them.  And then, quite amazingly, He came and walked among us.  His people, His place.  At the end of time, He will dwell with His embodied people (not spirits) in a real and tangible place.  Yes, we long for place and people --- for real community and "land" --- because it is who He is.

When I was a kid my friend Bobby and I walked the streets of our neighborhood, navigating backyards, jumping fences, avoiding dogs, and rehearsing for adulthood, among a place and a people that we will never forget.  Even now, I can remember the feel of fence posts, telephone poles, pavement, curb and gutter, and the grass in his backyard on which we lay looking out at stars.  It may only have been a barely noticed corner of suburbia, but I was Super 8.  I was outwalking.  Even now, I can see the street names, the navigable backyard paths, feel the asphalt under my feet.

I don't want to live life vicariously or virtually.  I don't want to just be a Super 8.  I want to live life among a people and a place that I deeply and intimately know.

I want to walk in it like God did.

 [The photo of William Whyte and his Super 8 camera, featured on the back cover of his book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, is by Margret Bemiss, a researcher in the Street Life Project.]


 

 


Shelter Me

The second intimation of deep, cosmic joy. . . is really a variation of the first: the sensation of shelter, of being out of the rain, but just out.  I would lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side; I would huddle under bushes until the rain penetrated; I loved doorways in a shower.  On our side porch, it was my humble job, when it rained, to turn the wicker furniture with its seats to the wall, and in these porous caves I would crouch, happy almost to tears, as the rain drummed on the porch rail and rattled the grape leaves of the arbor and touched my wicker shelter with a mist like the vain assault of an atomic army.

(John Updike, in Of the Farm)

Lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side. . . .  How appropriate to read this today, as a steady rain falls, as I lean in, prompted by Updike's words, to hear the rain but, not only that, to be reminded of the thin membrane that divides the interior of my warm and dry home from the elements without.  Shelter.

I am not alone, Updike says, and I say the experience is not singular even to me.  Many times as a child I lay curled on the floor of my parents' station wagon savoring the shelter and heat at my mother's feet. Many was the fort my sister and I built from a card table covered by a blanket, a light within, darkness without.  Many was the tent I lay in at night, reaching my hand out to touch the almost paper thin canvas that kept out the night.

In restaurants, I seek out corners, booths, places out of the open, hemmed in, protected.  I gravitate to corners, relish a window from which I can see without but be within.  An automobile seems impregnable, a mobile extension of home; a good book, order out of chaos; a lamp, a divider of night and day, of good from evil; a friend's face, assurance among strangers.

Shelter from the storm.  A temporal assurance.  A fallible yet real metaphor for the only true shelter, that "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ will abide in the shadow of the/ Almighty" (Ps. 91:1).

Press your fingers to the inside of the old tent canvas, and rain may seep through.  SUVs crinkle in pileups. Houses sometimes leak, and windows crack. Like Updike, you can catch the deep, cosmic joy of being out in the elements, out in the world, and yet not of the world, of being sheltered.  You sense the deep shelter of the God in whose shadow you dwell, in whose house you live.  Outside that, it's cold and wet and dark.  Why would anyone want to live out there?

My sister said there were goblins out there, monsters that eat children.  I lifted the blanket corner, saw the spooky silhouettes of them, heard the groanings of the furnace, spied the flicker of the pilot light.  I dropped the blanket, felt something like joy from the fragile refuge we enjoyed, happy almost to tears. Even now that room in the darkness testifies to me of the shelter to come, becomes a prayer I summon every day: Shelter me, I say.  Draw the flaps around me.  Make me happy --- beyond tears.

[Do not think me so literate as to read John Updike.  The quote is from an essay on Updike by Larry Woiwode, collected in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (Crossway, 2011).  You can be impressed by my reading that book, at least a little, though my comprehension of it is like that of seeing through a glass dimly.  Woiwode's book is the source of many a rumination, some which may find their way here, others of which may be inarticulable.]

 


Oh, Melancholia

My son accuses me of only listening to songs that are depressing and gloomy.  It makes me sad that he would think that.

Chalk that propensity up to years of listening to folk singers and singer-songwriters, many of whom major in angst and world-weariness.  No, I can't blame them.  Really, it's deep childhood trauma, the emotional scars of two events.  One, our dog, Pug (haunting name, isn't it?) died on Christmas Day.  Imagine that, a day on which the Incarnation is celebrated and our dog chooses that very day to "decarnate" himself.  Well, or something like that.  I was four, and you can imagine what I suffer from these 49 years later.

And then there were my three wicked step-sisters --- no, really just sisters, though the idea of stepsisters just sounds more wicked, doesn't it?  Before I had any dignity, that is, about the age of four, they dressed me up like a girl and paraded me around the neighborhood.  Have I forgotten?  Not on your life.  And yet, by God's grace this has not created any gender confusion but only contributed to this melancholia of which I write.

Oh, melancholia.  What a delicious disposition.  It's coming on Christmas. . . and if I had a river I'd skate away. . . at least that's what Joni Mitchell says in that kind of but not really Christmas song called, in true holiday fashion, "The River."  On the day after Thanksgiving I pull out all my lyrically saddest or most musically morose songs  --- all my Joni Mitchell sound-a-likes --- and play them over and over again on long car trips to wails of complaint and gnashings of teeth from the rear quarter.  I love it.  There is nothing like a sad Christmas song to cheer the heart.  Give me a minor key, anytime, an unresolved coda, a santa-brought-no-gifts-wife-left-dog-died-got-fired sort of faux country song, and I'm happy.  Sorta.

This Christmas I'm off to a particularly good start.  The Moravian Star I always hang over the side door lights up just fine indoors but won't light up outdoors.  Peters out just across the threshold.  It's inexplicable.  Spooked.  Gremlin-ized.  I'm afraid to task my son with it, as he may well make it more aerodynamic and yet still not solve the lighting problem.  (He's an aerospace student/pilot type.)  I'll make it fly --- one kick and I'll put it in my neighbor's front yard, and then we'll see if it lights up.

Got my daughter a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with one sad ornament on it.  The acorn don't fall far from the tree, does it?  Sad, sad tree, and she's so happy with it. I may even get a big tree and decorate it Charlie Brown style.  Very feng shui.  It takes a lot of effort to be lazy and call it simple.  One ornament.  Just one.

[Dad, what are you writing?

A new blog post.

About what?

Joy and happiness.

No you're not!  It's you.  It can't be.]

You see what I must put up with.  My melancholia is not respected, not taken seriously.  I am the butt of jokes, at the forefront of derision.  That makes me sad.

I am predisposed to words like bittersweet, ambivalent, or even adjectival phrases like happy-sad, as they all seem to be saying two things at once.  Keeps people hopping when you talk like that, and it suits my inwardly smiling melancholic disposition to find sadness inside of happiness, to be both-and not either-or.

But speaking of words, and getting to the point of this meditation on my melancholy, there seems to be a bias against the melancholic, a sense that it means someone who is depressed all the time.  Dig a little, though, and you see another definition, an older one: "pensive contemplation."  In that, I hear the Psalmist and Jesus, something to aspire to and not avoid.

When David declared in that most melancholy of psalms that "I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof (Ps. 102:7, NIV), he wasn't simply depressed but both burdened and comforted ---  he laments his sin and that of a nation and yet is comforted by assurances that God is faithful and compasisonate and will "rebuild Zion" (v. 16) and "respond to the prayer of the destitute" (v. 17).  He lay in a state of "pensive contemplation."  And when Jesus said "blessed are those who mourn," which is a state, as John Stott reminds us, to aspire to, a burden over the sin both without and within, he did not fail to promise that those who aspire to such mourning "will be comforted" (Mt. 5:4).  There is deep joy and hope and promise wrapped in a holy sadness over sin.

I can't play the truly sad songs, the lyrically nihilistic or musically chaotic.  I can't play them because they aren't true, beautiful, or good.  They embody the despairing sadness of a people without faith, hope, or love.  That's not me.

The melancholy songs speak to me because they carry the weight of sin and yet are better able to hold the promise of joy than the light and happy fluff.  A pensive contemplation is a posture that often suits me.  The deeper trauma that affects me is not sibling devilry or the loss of childhood pets but the trauma of grace.  From that, thank God, I will never ever recover.


Steady, Now

"That night, in a properly-made bunk, I reached out to touch the wooden wall beside me.  It looked a little like home and there was a faint scent of pine."  (Sylvester Jacobs, in Born Black)

Sad, really, that you can no longer purchase the long-out-of-print Born Black.  Published in 1977, it is the brief biography (thus far) of an Oklahoma born black man, Sylvester Jacobs.  Jacobs' story races from growing up in a racially divided small town, to Moody Bible Institute and its unwritten rule against interracial dating, to missions in Europe, and finally, to a chalet in Huemoz, Switzerland, where he was introduced to Francis and Edith Schaeffer and the ministry of L'Abri.  There the pain of racism melted along with his anger, his faith grew, he discovered his vocation of photography, and this very black American met and married a very white English woman.

Jacobs is just one of the many people whose lives were touched by the ministry of Francis and Edith Scaheffer.  The chapter title says it all: "They Gave Me Back My Life."  More about Jacobs later.  But the phrase I set forth above, as simple as it seems, is one that resonated with me.  Jacobs is alone on his bunk in a place where he doesn't know anyone, a place of uncertainty where he doesn't fully understand the conversations about theology and philosophy and art.  He is a long way from Oklahoma, a long way from home.  What does he do?  He reaches out to touch something real, something beyond the invisible phantoms of fear, doubt, and anxiety.  Touching that bedroom wall, he sensed home; he left the storm and found an anchor.  He sensed something solid.

I often do that.  I'm shaken by something and I reach out and touch something solid.  A tree will work.  The wall, a bedpost, a valued book.  I remind myself that not everything changes, that some things can be depended upon.  In a world of ceaseless activity and increasing velocity and shallowness, I hold on.  And in the best of such times, I see through the thing I touch to the changeless God behind it all, the One the Psalmist says is the Rock of our salvation.  Solid and sure.  I say to myself, "Steady, now."


A Proper Laughing

"There was something that He hid from all men when He went up on the mountain to pray.  There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation.  There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."  (G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy)

We need not go far to discover evidence that God has a sense of humor.  Have you looked at yourself lately?  I have. Besides the comical physical imperfections, there is the comedy of my life --- the good that comes my way in spite of me.  Behind the tragedy that is our life, there is a comedy, and that is grace, a gift from a God of mirth.

And yet it's difficult to see, buried as it is in irony. For His part, God won't break out laughing but holds it close, keeps it in, wanting to surprise us with this great gift of laughter in the world to come.  Irony is His hint at the great laughter to come.  Frederick Buechner says it well when he talks about how "the parables  can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people."  The Gospel is, Buechner says, "the coming together of God in His unending greatness and glory and man in his unending littleness, prepared for the worst but rarely for the best, prepared for the possible but rarely for the impossible."  

Many of us have read the humor out of the Gospel, have forgotten how outlandish it is to believe that a Supreme Being, the Maker of Universes, would condescend to become like us, among a little people in a backwater land, a petty, humorless people mired in tradition and rules of their own making, a people who had a sorry history of lapse, of unfaithfulness.  And yet He came in that earth-bending moment of irony.

I think the best reaction to the Gospel is deep laughter.  Like when Sarah heard she would bear a child, old Sarah of creaking bones and wrinkled skin. A baby, really?  So when we consider the Gospel, reflect on our own feeble attempts to gain our salvation, we too have to laugh at the gift we've been given.  Eternal life, me?

When Chesterton said God's mirth was hidden, I think He meant to tease us, to provoke us.  Maybe he prompting us to look beneath the tragic for the comic.  Drill down and see grace.  Look up and consider the great laughter of Heaven that awaits.  Laugh and say with the Psalmist, "what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:4).  Are you laughing now?


A Good Ghost, A Proper Scaring

"The whole of our life inside and out is to be absolutely haunted by the presence of God.  A child's consciousness is so mother haunted that although the child is not consciously thinking of its mother, yet when calamity arises, the relationship that abides is that of the mother.  So we are to live and move and have our being in God, because the abiding consciousness of God pushes itself to the front all the time."  (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest)

Everyone is haunted by something or someone. There is no void, no absence of haunting.  I met a woman once, a plaintiff in a medical malpractice lawsuit, who was haunted by her injury, by what it had done to her.  Staring at me, the enemy, over a medical file so obviously dear to her, I could sense the meaning it gave her life even as bitterness disfigured her face and body.  In it she lived and moved and had her being, such as it was.

Other people are haunted by memories, by traumas large and small, by perceived injustices that grow over time.  They begin to shape their lives.  It can become the thing they hold on to, even as an abused spouse holds on to their abuser.

But to hear Chambers use the word "haunted" in a positive sense is new to me and refreshing.  It reminds me how we sometimes speak of the "Christ-Haunted South," particularly as given shape by Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, the idea that everywhere we look in the South we see something of Christ, of Christianity --- Holy Ghost to some, just spook to others.  And yet even that is merely descriptive of our culture.  Chambers means far more. He means for us to embrace this haunting.

It's something like this: I am my parent's son.  When they are both gone, they are still with me.  They shape me. My actions and thoughts are stamped with their mark.  Every move I make refers back to them.  What Chambers is saying, however, is that our relationship with Christ is even more like that.  His desire for us is that we "live and move and have our being in him," to be so haunted by his presence that He becomes our primary reference point, however mediated by parent, spouse, or child, by employer, friend, or homeland --- so much so, in fact, that all the haunts of this world are overshadowed by His haunting.

There are many things that haunt us in the world, but Flannery O'Connor nailed one big one that imbues much literature, film, and music, a creeping nihilism that we sometimes catch out of the corner of our eye just outside the darkened window.  She named this pandemic haunting: "[I]f you live today you breathe in nihilism.  In or out of the Church it's the gas you breathe.  If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now."  We have better air to breathe, a finer thing to be haunted by, a faith and hope and love that lies behind everything, one that murmurs just below the roar of nihilism.

When Christ said "abide in me," maybe what He called us to is a better haunting, a proper scaring, informed by a Ghost story that is true in the deepest sense: the Gospel of Life.  I'm spooked by a God that is in the rose and in the thorn, in a sunrise and in a hurricane, in death as in life.  And yet I'm not afraid of this good Ghost, of His gracious inhabitation of this world and me. I look for Him everywhere, as much in the face of a bitter woman and out a darkened window as in a flower and a hymn. He's the One on the other side of the door, the face in the window, the creak in the floor, and the rattle in our lungs.  I'm spooked by Christ, haunted by His presence,and while I may be afraid at times and of some things, I'm not afraid of this haunting.  I want it.


A Keeping God

In Psalm 121, the Psalmist uses the word keep (or keeper) six times in eight verses.  Repetition is a writer's way of drawing attention to a certain theme, and this propensity, along with the parallelism of the psalms, heightens a conviction that something important is being communicated.  And yet like all scripture, its spiritual truth must be mediated through the mundane and even tragic events of the world.  It must be incarnated in life.

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal contained a more than two-page article on one such life experience.  It took time to read, and I gave it the time, given its rarity.  Seldom will you find such an extensive, in depth newspaper article, and yet the WSJ remains exceptional: a newspaper that can feature such longish articles and yet which still manages to make money.  The story, that of Futoshi Toba, brought home to me like nothing I have seen or read has to date the soul-wrenching choices faced by many in the midst of the earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan.  Toba was mayor of Rikuzentakata, a small town devastated by the worst natural disaster to strike Japan in decades.  In Toba's case, he had to choose between meeting his obligations to protect his community --- to do his job --- and attempting to rescue his wife.  His actions saved many who depended on him but cost him the life of the one who he loved most.  He is plagued by doubt about that choice, the article trailing off with the pregnant question he asks aloud: "What kind of a human being am I?" 

The article makes no mention of Toba's religious faith, though statistically speaking it is unlikely that he is a Christian.  Yet, were he, what would it mean to say that God is his "keeper?"  Of what would Toba have assurance if he prayed the word of the Psalmist, ""The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life?"

I might ask the same question about my mother who is, I am told, in the last stages of an illness, Parkinson's Disease, that will contribute to her death.  Or the woman I learned about yesterday, Karen, who at 42 faces death from leukemia.  What is certain is that God will neither keep my mother nor Karen nor Toba from death, that both those near to us in kinship and friendship and those far from us, as well as ourselves, will taste death.  Some will suffer more than others, but all will see it.  This truism, of course, was well known to the Psalmist.  So how is it that God keeps our lives?

When the Psalmist says "I lift up my eyes to the hills," his evident focus is Zion, the hill of God, the Holy City.  So something eternal and not temporal is in mind, something unseen and not seen.  What he seems to be saying is that God will keep us spiritually --- by his power, by his presence, and by his provision.  By reminding us that he is  is the "one who made heaven and earth," he draws attention to this unique keeper, one who has the power to make universes and, thus, who certainly has the wherewithal to protect us.  It's not that this power doesn't have practical, temporal resonance.  It does.  God provides food, water, shelter, Christian fellowship, and all manner of things to "keep" us, and yet he also allows hardship, holy silence, and suffering to "keep" us in ways that material comforts cannot.  In fact, it's not too much to say that this Keeper will use everything at his disposal (and that is, literally, everything) to keep us.  He never sleeps but always attends.  His is a holy provocation in our sloth, a holy nurture in our need.  It is one thing to be kept.  It is another to be loved and kept.  The kept can't always get what they want, whether it's a longer life, more food, or freedom from pain, but they will get exactly what they need.

I told my African "son," Joseph, an 18-year old Ugandan orphan, of my mother's plight, because I knew he would understand and appreciate it like one who is intimately familiar with the keeping of a God who allows even lifelong affliction.  And he did.  He said that " All I can say Dad is that God will stand and be by your side and I know he will welcome her soul. It is bad Dad and in my heart I can feel it!"  He is telling me that God will keep her and keep me, and he should know.  He has lost both his parents.

Say a prayer for Futoshi Toba, that God will be His Keeper.  Lift Karen to the Keeper, that she will be kept from reflection on her infirmities and stayed on her Father in Heaven.  Say a prayer too for my mother, that God will keep her eyes on the hills, the source of her help and hope.  "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for [them] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. . . (2 Cor. 4:17), as they are lovingly cared for by a keeping God.

 


The Trouble With Trouble

Yesterday, walking through my neighborhood, I felt as if I carried a heavy sack of trouble with me --- the unrest in the Middle East, a earthquake-tsunami-irradiated Japan, a hospitalized friend --- trouble that dogged my every step.  "Well, we're living in the last days, you know," says a Christian acquaintance, and I want to say (but do not say, since he may have meant to reassure me) that telling me that is like telling me "Well, we're  living, you know," since my view is that we've been in the last days since Christ came the first time.  Trouble has been here, is here, and will be here until Christ returns.  And yet, walking that morning, dwelling on the headlines, it's easy to lose perspective.  When I consider the tragic loss of life in Japan, the stoic and fatalistic mindset I read in the faces I see, the megalomania of the Libyan dictator, or the frailness of my friend, emotion can put me in a well of darkness out of which it is difficult to see.  And in that well, shadows and bogeymen abound.  That's the trouble with trouble: it always get worse down there in the well.

At such times, there are  two ways I lose perspective. First, at that moment I lose hope.  I forget that great, unexpected good so often comes from calamity.  The Bible is full of such stories.  Take Joseph, thrown into a well and sold into slavery, rising to a position as Pharaoh's Chief of Staff.  God always has a way of taking the unlikely and elevating them, of rescuing us form a world gone wrong.  Then there is the great promise of providence, that "God works all things for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose."  You can't read the Bible without stumbling all over such stories, such promises.  By God's grace, by remembering, I need to reclaim that high ground.

The other way of losing perspective is a chronological fixation that leads me to regard my time oe circumstances as somehow more troublesome or difficult than other times, that our time is somehow more unique than all other times.  No one is picking the day and hour of his coming, you know, but (wink, wink) just look at what going on in the Middle East and how about that earthquake and, well, we're living in the last days you know.  Well, of course we are.  At such times, I need the Wall Street Journal.  You heard me: the Wall Street Journal.

What I appreciate about some of the seasoned stock market and business investors who often write in the Journal is the principled approach to investing that they have which keeps them blessedly free of emotion-driven decisions.  When the market drops, they don't sell off. They look for opportunities.  They revisit and remind themselves of their principles, forged in a less volatile time, and they remember.  What do they remember?  They remember other such swings in the market, other crises, and they have the rich historical perspective to even act contrary to emotion, to buy, for example, when everyone may be selling.  Their perspective demonstrates a reasonable faith in the market, a belief in good companies and their stock which overrides the volatility of the time, and ultimately it demonstrates hope, hope informed by history that time will heal, will restore and even, sometimes, surpass what has been lost.  They are reasonable optimists in a time (all times, really) when most make decisions based on fear. Something intuitively tells them, "Fear not."

And that's the voice I hear today: "Fear not."  To His quaking disciples, Jesus said "Do not let your hearts be troubled," and He says it to us.  He's really asking that we focus on Him, the First Principle, the one who does not change.  When the times are volatile, when the earth moves under our feet, when a tsunami of water or cares overwhelms us, we act on the same truth we've always known.  The truth that was truth in a good time is truth in a troubled time.  We too can walk on water if we keep our eyes on Him.

I wish I could say that when I returned home from the walk the troubled mind I began with was gone.  It wasn't.  And yet I felt like I had been given a glimpse of the landscape behind and ahead, one that gave me hope.

 


The Limits of Cartography

I have a lust for maps and map-making.  Nothing much equals the delight I have in pulling out the Rand McNally Road Atlas and poring over the lines and names on the pages, planning my every move.  I'm a planner, a dreamer, an imaginer of all that will happen and all I will see along the way.  Sometimes the actual travel is melodramatic; I have already been there in my mind.

And yet I so often find that my imagination has gotten ahead of life.  Things happen unexpectedly.  Someone's sick.  There are delays.  Accommodations need to be changed.  We scramble to rebook, to modify plans, to adapt.  We never really know what is around the next bend in the highway.  Sometimes that's unsettling.  And yet it can be exciting, as a new and unplanned discovery may await us.

The road trip or the family vacation is an apt metaphor for the spiritual journey, for our walkabout with God.  Christ is my guide and Scripture is my road map, and yet I do not know where life will take me, what awaits me around the next turn of events.  In the final essay of Alan Jacobs' collection, entitled Wayfaring, he describes it this way:

The light of Christ. . .  --- the light that is Christ --- . . . illuminates with perfect clarity your next step, but blots out the surrounding territory.  Christ is the Word of God, and the psalmist tells us that the word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path: it shows us where to place one trembling foot, but it does not make us authoritative cartographers of the whole territory.

Jacobs goes on to note the limitations of our Guide's revelation to us, noting that "it's worth remembering that when people ask Jesus the cartographic kind of questions --- 'Will many be saved or only a few?' --- Jesus tells them to mind their own spiritual business."  The question, really, is simple: Where do I take my next step (or, spiritually, what does faithfulness look like now, today, in this place, in this moment?)  Doing so, we have faith that the following step will be illuminated at that moment, that trust in Jesus will be proven warranted.  Sure, He gave us scripture to mark out the boundaries of our travels and a theology that represents our best attempt to see the landscape ahead in some holistic fashion, to understand where we are and to settle in our imagination a good dream of what's ahead.  As a result, there are things we know --- that He is good, that He is trustworthy, that He is present, and that Heaven is sure.  And yet there is much we do not know --- things we don't plan on happening.

In the front of my Rand McNally, there is a disclaimer to the effect that "we cannot be responsible for any errors, changes, omissions, or any loss, injury, or inconvenience sustained by any person or entity as a result of information or advice contained in this book."  Scripture --- that map for the soul --- makes another claim, of course, promising that it's "breathed out by God and profitable. . ." (2 Tim. 4:16).  William Rand and Andrew McNally could make no such claim.

And yet, I'm not giving up maps.  I want to dream well.  I want to know the possibilities, the parameters of the path.  And yet things happen out there, providences aplenty.  I want to be ready for a holy detour, one trembling step at a time, in His light, at my feet, on the way, Home.


A Universe in a Grain of Sand

"To change the world we must first change the way we see it; we must see it from a different perspective.  A cultivated mind can see the universe in a falling leaf, an orchard in a seed, an ocean in a drop of water, eternity in a grain of sand."  

(Joshua Choonmin Kang, in Scripture By Heart)

When my children were young, we would go for strolls and then walks through the neighborhood, parks, and woods, stopping to touch and handle and talk about everything.  A twig or leaf would be a reason to talk about a tree, a rock about the earth, the water in a stream about lakes and rivers and faraway places.  We would move from the particular to the whole, effortlessly it seemed, as natural as any conversation.  We were like amateur ecologists, seeing connections in everything, a web of life.

Back in the house, we'd turn on a spigot and talk about where water came from, the pipes that wound under the city and into the house, and to where the water swirling down the bathtub drain disappeared.  Turning a light switch on and off and on and off we would marvel at the power we had, and a power outage would give us new things to talk about, new connections to explore.  The curiosity of young children made us consider things we took for granted, marvel at the wonder of life right outside our door, the complicated and wondrous workings of a home, a city, and a world.  Nothing was to be taken for granted.  Nothing stood alone.

Perhaps it was all that talking, that wondering about connections and origins, or maybe it is the schooling in ecology or planning that I received in urban design school, or then again maybe it is innate, a God-implanted DNA that drives me (and all of us) to move from particular to universal, from a grain of sand to eternity.  Or maybe it is all of that.  But what I know is that I can't stop thinking about those connections, about how the leaf crunched up in my young son's hand is connected to a twig, a branch, a limb, a trunk, a tree --- to soil, water, and sun, to a Creator who breathes life into and upholds and sustains all things by the power of His word, by His very life.

 What Joshua Kang is saying in Scripture By Heart is that meditating on scripture enlarges our perceptivity of reality.  We begin to see connections within scripture, great themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, and then looking out at the world we see how it resonates with those very same themes.  Peering into the landscape of Creation we reflect back on God's words and appreciate anew what once we may have taken for granted.  We weep over tragic loss of life to tsunami and we better appreciate that shortest of scripture verses, "Jesus wept."  We hold a leaf and marvel at the power of the sun in photosynthesis and better appreciate the phrase "In Him was life, and that life was the light of man."  We begin to see things whole, looking out at a world through the prism of His breath, His word.

 I am not the first reader to remark on the amazing propinquities that often occur when reading more than one thing at a time.  At the same time that I was working through Kang's mediations on memorizing scripture, I was nearing completion of Roy Peter Clark's "meditations" on grammar, The Glamour of Grammaran infectious (and instructive) guide to language by a man obviously in love with words, at play in in a life of language.  Near the end of the book Clark hints at a divine mystery behind language:

Language is a gift, a treasure of evolution but also a spark of the divine.  The ancient Hebrew word dabar describes the power of a personal God to speak directly to men and women.  In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus is Logos, the Greek form of Word.  The word spirit comes from the word meaning "to breathe," and breath gives us life and something more, the ability to turn air into language.  

Clark goes on to contrast the babble of confusion in language after Babel to the clarity of language at Pentecost, concluding that "[i]t is the power of the written and spoken word within us, a power so great it can feel --- when used for a good purpose --- like magic."  It reminds me the too rare feeling I have when I write or say something that seems too good to originate with me, too perceptive, and I sense a grace at work, a Babel-wrecking Spirit that fills me with language, speaking and writing through me.  It's quite unbidden.  It's grace.

Like a smooth pebble in my young son's hand, a crumpled leaf clasped by my little girl, I am holding onto a few scriptures, rolling them over and over in my mind.  And sometimes I see connections, perceive that behind the rooms of the words are larger rooms of meaning, deeper connections to other words, grander themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. I pull the thread of one verse and find it reaches back into a tapestry of words, of life itself, back to a God who holds all things in His hand, pull until taut I realize Who has hold of the other end and is pulling me in.  Just as I can't imagine not pausing with my young son to watch the water in a stream flow, to wonder from where it comes and to where it rushes, I can't brush by scripture and not ponder its meaning, its connection to the whole, to the Writer who set it down.  At least I better not.

A universe in a grain of sand?  You bet.  It's all there, full of magic and mystery.  You just have to stop, take hold of it, and listen.

 

 


To Abide

41398498 Where I sit there is an arc of sunlight that stretches across my left side ending in a trapezoid of warmth on the cherry wood of my desk.  Like my somnolent cat who lounges across another patch of light on the carpet, I could abide here for a long time.  Gravity already draws my eyelids shut.  Warmth, rest, time --- they all pull me in, at least until I remember why I'm here.

There are some scripture phrases you hear all your life if you are, as I have been, blessed to have heard the Bible read all you life, and yet how quickly they become cliche or invisible if unused.  Like the box of miscellany at the corner of my office, the one I mean to sort through and dispose of, the one I now walk by countless times each day and do not notice, so I often do not notice the oddity or the profundity of a word of scripture, the richness of its meaning or application.  Like an onion, scripture is multi-layered: peel back one layer of meaning and you find another, even another question.  Walk around it, look at it from different angles, and you may begin to wonder whether you had it wrong all along.  You have a sense of its "roundness," its multi-dimensionality.  Like the box in my office, to get to the bottom of it you need to spend time with it, to abide with it.

This abiding is what Joshua Choonmin Kang is encouraging in the recently published Scripture By Heart: Devotional Practices for Memorizing God's Word.  I have to confess that the subtitle's word, "memorizing," instigated a knee-jerk reaction in me, a rebellion against anything that smacks of rote and ritual.  Images of elementary-age Sunday School where the matron of the class asked us to recite scripture by memory (aloud, here, now, in front of everyone?) flashed in my mind.  And yet there was also the positive memory of a small group Navigators 2:7 series from my college days that continues to bear fruit in scriptures I can still call to mind.  There must be something to it.  Kang's book is helping.

To "abide in Christ" is to live in, dwell in, and exist in Christ, to, in essence, move in with Him.  When my wife and I moved in this house and to this small patch of suburbia 25 years ago, it was new and unknown.  We grew into it.  We learned its dimensions, its creaks, its smells, and we made it our own.  It is our abode.  We dwell here.  We know this place.  And yet, I'm often aware of how we take it for granted.  Like right now, I appreciate anew its orientation, one that permits sunlight to splash across my desk at just the right angle.

Knowing scripture is something like knowing what you have in Christ, the furniture of our abode, our orientation, our space and light, the roominess of our habitation.  The metaphors may be mixed and imperfect, but the point is that knowing the words of God in scripture are part of what it is to know Him.  Waking in the night, in darkness, I see the shapes of the furniture around me and know I am home.  Waking in the darkness of the soul, I can see and hear the words of scripture spoken, giving comfort, telling me that all is well.

So I'm trying not to think of it so much as memorizing scripture but as better knowing and appreciating where I live --- in Christ. Like a blind person, I want to be able to navigate in the dark, to know where I live so well that I can live and move in it from memory.

One verse I remember clinging to during a trying first year of college was Phillipians 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."  I have no difficulty summoning that verse to mind.  Like a well worn recliner, I reclined on its promise a lot that year, sometimes even doubting if it would hold me.  Now I see the verse less as one of hoped for accomplishment as one of perseverance, not "I will succeed" but "I will persevere."  Having lived longer, I realize that the to be true the verse has to be true not only for me but for everyone who believes --- a man trapped far below the ground in Chile, a Ugandan orphan, or an aged parent who can no longer always summon my name.  It has to be true for them as well.

So, Scripture By Heart is a welcome encouragement to abide in Christ, to live well among the furniture of His words, so that one day, when we see Him face to face, we'll realize He has dwelt here all along.  We know Him by knowing His words.

 

 


Every Breath I Take, Every Move I Make

The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winner's circle.  The Christian life is going to God.  In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same government, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we take, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life.

(Pastor and Author Eugene Peterson, in a commentary on Psalm 121)

To demonstrate the reality of God's presence, Francis Schaeffer used to ask gathered students to place the palm of their hand to their cheek, as close as possible without touching, so close that you could feel the warmth emanating from it but, again, without touching.  And then he would say something like "there is God with you, infinite and yet personal."  I've taken to using this tactile reminder of God's presence of late, particularly when concerns, specific and ephemeral, press in on me.  Just this morning, waking in the dark, as I felt a heaviness resting on me just as I awoke, so I freed an arm from the warmth of the covers and brought it to my face, thanking God for His nearness, that not only is He there and not silent but He is ever-present, ever-powerful, and ever-knowing.  Really, it is He who presses in, who hems me in on all sides.

I cannot say that I always feel that nearness of God's presence, but I am thankful for the times that He does something to remind me of just how close He is, of how my life is superintended by Him, how every choice, whether bad or good, which I have made have been in the end mysteriously caught up in what He is doing.  As a young child of maybe five, riding with my mother to see my grandmother, I saw an African-American woman standing in the door of a very modest house, and I believe God opened my eyes then to the realization that human beings were different and yet the same, and I began to see the world with a larger sense of its humanity.  In elementary school, lying in bed at night, certain I would never go to sleep, I watched the lights cast by passing cars as they moved across the walls, and God made me wonder about the people in the cars and where they were going and where they lived.  Later, while in junior high, awakening suddenly in the night, I was convinced that God said something audible to me, said my name.  That's all, just my name.

And those moments are just for starters.  I seem forever to be looking back for these reminders so as to be more deeply rooted in the present and more assured of the future of a God who is present, who, as He promised, will never leave us.

Rummaging through some books rescued in the cleaning out of my mother's home, I found one my father had given her on their anniversary in 1961.  It's called The Art of Living, an inspirational book full of maxims organized by topic.  The one that caught my eye was "The Art of Traveling."  One such maxim said this:  "Travel hopefully.  'To travel hopefully,' writes Robert Louis Stevenson, "is better than to arrive.'"  It reminded me of how living existentially, or moment by moment, is really a pilgrim's state of being, constantly practicing the presence of Christ, remembering that He is at work keeping us.  He guards, protects, and preserves.  As Eugene Peterson said, we "travel the same ground that everyone else walk on," and yet each step we take and breath we breathe we can know He is present and, in the words of the doxology, "is able to keep [us] from stumbling and to present [us] before the presence of his glory with great joy. . ." (Jude 1:24).

This may not be a quiet garden but Heaven's noisy anteroom.  And yet He keeps me.  He watches over me.  Every breath I take, and every move I make.  With that thought, I sit back in my chair, bring my hand to my face, just so, and know: He is near.

 


Every Person, a Universe

"We must not see any person as an abstraction.  Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.  

(Elie Wiesel, from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code)

In law school, we Christians spent a lot of time considering how and under what circumstances we could represent criminals.  Yet, in the end, for all the anguish it may cause, it comes down to one fundamental belieft: all people are made in the image of God.  Thus, there is a dignity accorded to all human beings, even the badly soiled and defaced image of God in the child molester and serial murderer. And yet it is not at the extremes that I forget this fact but, like all important principles, it is lost in the quotidian, in the everyday slog of life.

Perhaps we tend toward abstraction and generalization because we don't want to be bothered with the complexity and mystery of the person in front of us.  The cognitive dissonance caused by a "bad" person who commits an act of genuine kindness offends our categories, and yet it happens all the time.  Even I am more or less than who I think I am, as even I cannot fully fathom the mystery of what it is to be me.  And yet this too is a way we image God in his inscrutability and incomprehensibility.  Despite what is revealed about God and what we know of ourselves, in the end of me and Him lie mystery.  After all, He put a universe in me and you.

All of this should give me some humility as I look at other people.  Despite all I think I know, there is more I do not know.  My predictive ability is limited.  Despite their effervescent appearance, I know not what anguish they live with; their melancholy, what joys they know.  I am finite.  And yet there is One who knows me fully, the One who said to Jeremiah "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. . . " (Jer. 1:5 NIV).  We are amazed at the universe without, the endless and expanding galaxies, and yet the universe within is just as unfathomable, just as immense.

So, when you think you know someone, think again.  Be mindful that these are not abstractions but beautiful and terrible embodiments of mysteries.  C.S. Lewis said it best:  "You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."

And then, think again:  The God who made the universe without and the universe within came from outside those universes and poured His immortal self into a body in these universes.  That is the truest and most incredible fairy-tale of all.  And we're only on the first page of a very long and good story.

A year ago in Uganda I went with a friend, Faith Kunihura, to visit an even poorer community near the one in which we worked.  Behind the thatch hut where one family lived, I saw a lean-to with a man lying on a mat, obviously sick.  Upon inquiry we found out that the man was a stranger to this family, and yet they were doing what they could to care for him.  We touched him and prayed for him.  Walking away, Faith said to me: "I'm glad you showed me that man.  Looking at him, I saw the image of God lying there."

Universe. Immortal horror.  Everlasting splendor.  But not an abstraction.


Along the Path

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one.  A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.  It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. . . . It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; the obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets, it goes around. . . . A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape.  Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it. . . . It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

(Wendell Berry, from "A Native Hill," in The Long-Legged House)

As a child one pleasure of staying with my then seventy-something grandmother was the walks we took.  She did not drive, had never driven, and so other than being taken places by my mother, walked wherever she went.  It was enough for her.  She had no desire to travel.  She'd don her bonnet, which I assumed was just a necessary accessory for women her age going outdoors, and off we'd go, invariably walking paths through the woods, by the creek, circumventing the Southern Railway train tracks, and rarely, if ever, taking to an actual road.  

We'd visit friends, unannounced, sometimes ailing, and my grandmother would take them some food, maybe a homemade pie.  We'd stop in on an old cemetery, the forest overtaking it, gravestones askew from tree roots pushing them up.  She'd clear away vines that covered stones, brush away the dirt, stand with her hands on her hips and shake her head, obviously disgusted at the neglect of the place.  She cautioned us not to walk on the graves.  We played quietly, spoke in hushed tones.  We'd walk home, through a wild strawberry patch, where we'd help ourselves.  She'd make a basket from the folds of her skirt, carrying berries back with us.  We'd stop off by the creek that pooled under the railway bridge, and she'd let us wade in the water there.  We were in no hurry.

___________________

Today, I'm in no hurry.  We drove from Blowing Rock to Linville, to Grandfather Mountain, planning to plod along on the Black Rock Nature Trail.  I expected clouds and rain today, which may yet come, but for now it is fair and sunny, the air crisp, the color still in the trees, and we are on the move.

Coming to the trailhead, we found it closed, likely due to possible ice, so we drove up the mountain, walking in bitter cold out and across the "swinging" bridge, noting the snow-covered trees and carefully picking our way farther across the rocks for a better view.  Traveling back, up the Blue Ridge Parkway this time, we pointed to the trail looping under the Lynn Cove Viaduct, as it was one we had hiked before.  Continuing, we passed Julian Price Lake, also remembering a hike there many years ago with young children in tow.  

This too is a "ritual of familiarity," something my older children still love, that sense that we have been here before and will be here again.  Maybe it's the pleasure of seeing things that do not change much when so much else can change.  Or maybe it's just the softness of what you pass out here: rock outcroppings worn down by winds, the forest bed laden with fallen leaves, trees asymmetrical, shaped by wind.  Or maybe it's just the refreshing sense that unlike most days of the week, we are not trying to get somewhere but are contented to just be somewhere. We are in no hurry.

____________________

Scripture nowhere makes a tidy distinction between a "road" and a "path," as does Wendell Berry.  But the word "road" is rarely used metaphorically as is "path," but descriptively.  In Psalm 16:11 the Psalmist says "You have made known to me the path of life," and in  119:105 he refers to the "word" being a "light to my path."  There is a "path of the wicked" (Pr. 4:14) and a "path of the righteous," and we are told to "ponder the path of your feet; then all of your ways will be sure" (Pr. 4:26). Roads, on the other hand, are simply that: a way from one place to another.  The destination is the point of a road; the path is its own point.

_____________________

It'd be unfair to force the good/evil distinction on these journeys, as in road-bad and path-good. Coming in last night, in the dark, we skirted the traffic and lights of Boone by traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway for some 12 or so miles.  The Parkway is a blend of road and path, in places burrowing through the mountain, an obstacle to its travel, in others, living with and working with the mountain.  Given time, even its roughness born of demolition, concrete, and asphalt is assuaged; the trees felled return, moss grows on rocks, the edges of the road soften with grass, and the road itself seems in its curves little more than a wide, paved path, a road which has forgotten it is a road. In the darkness, snow swirling in our headlights, I imagine the animals in the forest watching us, waiting for our passing so that they can stand down, reclaim their land, in the wee hours of the night even repossess their path.

________________________

Life before God ought to be, as Eugene Peterson has said, a "long obedience in the same direction." Both path and road are headed somewhere, have a destination, a direction, but the metaphor of the path seems to better describe the way that we tread.  There are rituals of familiarity, both those disciplines of the faithful like worship, scripture, and prayer, as well as individual habits that come with knowledge of the place in which we find ourselves.  When an old worry crops up, for example, we may habitually remind ourselves of certain promises God has made, promises we have claimed in the past, trodding a familiar path and safely skirting an obstacle we have passed before.

At some point we realize, as did Brother Lawrence, that the path is Jesus, that He is "the Way" as well as the destination.  To abide in Him is to walk in the path of righteousness.  His path becomes the most natural thing in the world, "the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place," the bending of our will to His.

_____________________

It's not enough to be out walking.  It's not enough to have a destination.  We're told to "ponder our path" so that our "ways will be sure" (Pr. 4:26).  That means the only way to get there sooner is to watch our step, to notice where we are, to consider how best to live in this moment.

Even in Autumn, when leaves are falling and trees become bare, when sorrow may come unbidden, we can stop and ponder our path, even then adapting to the place God has taken us.  As Robert Frost says in his late Autumn poem, "My November Guest," where Sorrow is personified and addressed:

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Take a path, not a road, next time you're out walking.  Ponder what you see.  See in it a life lived unto God, one that "obeys the natural contours" of a landscape of His design.  You'll get where you're going. . . His way.  My grandmother taught me that.

 

 

 


Plotting the Resurrection

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion --- the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.

(E.B. White, from the Introduction to Onward and Upward In the Garden, by Katharine S. White)

E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and countless columns for The New Yorker, wrote this essay about his wife's annual late October planting of bulbs in her garden in what was, at this point, perhaps her last such planting.  I love that phrase, "plotting the resurrection," as it suggests the posture believers are encouraged to have in life: faithful, continued perseverance in our usual work, unto God, with hope for its ultimate meaning.

I work each day in a rather nondescript 1960s era building, fashionable perhaps in that time but uninteresting now.  I walk up two flights to my office.  I turn on the light. I hang up my coat. I sit down and sign into my computer. I listen to messages.  I read emails. I make phone calls.  I answer emails.  I write.  I read.  I move paper and files from one box to another.  I discuss.  Sometimes, I disagree.  I wait.  I make more phone calls.  At 5:30, I log out of the computer, rise, put on my coat, turn off the light, close the door, walk down the two flights of steps, and wave at the guard as I walk out the door.  

Tomorrow, I'll do it all again.

This is the quotidian, that which occurs everyday.  The ordinary.  Viewed apart from the resurrection, the drudgery of it, the ceaseless repetition, would weigh heavy on me, a sense of uselessness and meaninglessness rising up in me, creating cynicism, a lackadaisical attitude, and even despair.  And yet for the Christian, the most mundane of work is offered up to God and will be taken up by God and transformed in some as yet unknown way.  A continuity exists between the work we do here and the work we do in Heaven.  What we do now really means something, tainted though it may be by sin, weighed down by the travail of Creation.

In 1 Corinthians 3:13 Paul looks ahead to Heaven and sees that on that Day "each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it. . . ."  The Colossians are told "[w]hatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. . . ."  Work, no matter how mundane, is what we do, what we are made to do, and God uniquely equipped us for certain work or works that we do.  And, ultimately, he will sanctify that work, carrying forward all that is good in it to a recreated heavens and earth, to a New Creation.

That's why an old lady plants bulbs in the cold soil of October, just like she always has, year after year, believing that there will be a Spring of new life.  That's why I've engaged in a 26-year routine of faithfulness to a work that will go on in all that is good.  I'm not just plotting the resurrection --- I'm betting on it.


My Fall

now is the wind-time
the scattering clattering
song-on-the-lawn time
early eves and gray days
clouds shrouding the traveled ways
trees spare and cracked bare
slim fingers in the air
dry grass in the wind-lash
waving waving as the birds pass
the sky turns, the wind gusts
it must it must

("Autumn," by Debra Reinstra)

Out walking this morning, I enjoyed the untidiness and clutter of Creation.  Leaves and pine straw blanket lawns normally manicured and sharply edged, blow across streets, gather in clumps near drains.  Some trees look askew, asymmetrical, like poorly clad elderly folk or hastily clad youth. Still, the colors of dying leaves are rich, a last flame-out before passing, before their falling.  I kick the leaves as I walk, making a noise that carries me back to my childhood and yet reminds me that I am older now.

Allen Young writes that "[a]lthough autumn reminds us that nothing is 'pristine,' it prunes summer's luxuriant foliage, revealing the stark contours of mounds, crevices, and stream banks.  It is difficult to hide in the fall."  And as we get older, thank God, it is more and more difficult to hide who we are.  Our idiosyncrasies accentuate.  Our ways become set.  Our sins seem more evident.  Our speech less guarded.

I like late Autumn best, when there is still a hint of color in the trees, and yet they are so translucent that I can see through them to the essence of the land, to the curve of a hill, the rise of a mountain, the intricacy of trunks and branches and twigs, the leafy nests of squirrels, the glittering stillness of the lake water beyond normally opaque foliage, rocky outcrops, and the backyard living rooms of homes. It is a time when the land gives up its secrets.  Perhaps our autumn is a time we give up ours as well.

And it's a mess.  And we're a mess.  A beautiful mess.

This morning I walk thinking of that frightening passage in Luke 12:3 (ESV), that "whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops." It's sobering to think that just like the Fall will expose more and more of the real lie of the land to us until the Winter leaves it nothing to hide, so we move through life as God strips away our defenses, exposing our lie, as we submit to Him or, if we don't, then involuntarily submit on that last Day.  But then the comfort, the promise of Spring and a new Summer of life: "Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. . . . and everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of God also will acknowledge before the angels of God" (Lk. 12:7-8).  As Pastor Ray Stedman says:

Everything is wide open. No aspect of life can be hidden away. Knowing that, many of us are a little afraid to appear in glory. We know truths about ourselves that we do not want known. But Jesus says, "When you stand there with your entire record exposed for everybody to see, I will look at you and say, 'You are mine.' I will acknowledge your name before the Father and all his angels. This sinner, this defiled person, this unworthy character -- I want the universe to know -- he is mine!" That is what he promised to do. . . .

Rounding a curb, I catch a patch of pansies in the corner of my eye and stop, relishing this life amid the clutter of fallen leaves, the dying all around.  The sky turns, the wind gusts/ it must it must.  But that's not the end of the story.  Spring will come.  Until then, what a beautiful mess.


What Remains

When you come right down to it, all of us individually are somewhat like the church at Sardis, the one described in Revelation 3:1-6.  I would like to use the objectified and dispassionate voice of "all of us" but in truth I can only answer for me.  Most commentators believe that the churches mentioned in the first three chapters of the apocalyptic book are both historical (actual churches) and types of the church throughout history.  Not only that, I believe I have to turn the uncomfortable truth-ray of these verses on myself and admit that they are all more or less true of me.

Like these folk, sometimes I am like a dead man.  I have the reputation of being alive, but I am dead.  There are times when God seems distant, not because he is but because I am distracted and removed, caught up in myself and my concerns, living like an orphan.  I'm active, and there are works, but they lack spirit.  They are not complete.  They do not come from pure motive but from the keeping up of appearances, as in "Look at me.  I'm alive." Some works can come from a hollow religion, not from pure religion but from an impure justifying of myself.  The Westminster Divines had it right: "Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, or upon any pretense of good intention."  Commenting on this, G.L. Williamson says there is a real sense in which unbelievers can never do a truly good work, and believers can rarely do a perfectly good work (if they can at all), because there is "imperfect conformity of conscience to the Word of God."  Like that song by Jays of Clay, "Dead Man (Carry Me)":

Carry Me,
I'm just a dead man
Lying on the carpet
Can't find a heartbeat
Make me breathe,
I want to be a new man
Tired of the old one
Out with the old plan 

Life and a truly good work comes only when I am inhabited by the Spirit.  So I'm a little bit of Sardis, needing awakening everyday, repenting of poor motives and remembering what I have received which is, of course, everything, all I need, life itself.  If I know that, how can I attribute anything to myself?

OK, so I'm dead without Christ, dead every moment of every day that I turn away from God. I admit it.  I turn around and face God and remember He did it all for me.  What now?  He says to "strengthen the things that remain" (v. 2).  Some commentators think John was referring to people, specifically the faithful ones mentioned later in these verses, and some to practices.  I assume it was all the above but, as to me, I think it is saying that I am to build rightly on the things that remain, offering what I have as a service to God,  not focusing on what I lack but on what I have.  For example, if God hasn't given me the money to be a huge giver, then I can find creative ways to give of my time, of "what remains," not fretting about what I cannot do (which is common) but strengthening and building on what I can do.  If, as in my case, he has given me little profound to speak but with a great love of words, then I can write and write and write in service to Him.  If I have an insufficient love of His Word, then I can stop fretting and open the Book of Life and study it as a way into the love of the Book of His Word.

Strengthen what remains, he says.  In the end, what remains is the deposit He has left, the residual investment that He has not withdrawn but rather said "use it."  Put your hand to the plow.  Lean in. Lean into Him.  If you can't give it all, can't even give most of it, then offer up what you can.

As a friend often says by way of summing up: "That's what I'm talking about."


A Testament

Whenever I travel out of town, and particularly when I travel alone, one of the first things I do is open the drawer of the bedside nightstand to see if there is a Gideons Bible placed there.  Often there is.  I take it out a place it on the table, not only so or even mainly because I will read it (I prefer a new translation), but because I want something there to testify to me that I am not alone, that I am accountable to God while I am away from home.  It keeps me from making excuses.  It may encourage me to read it.  It reminds me not to even turn on the television, which will inevitably result in a wasted evening.  

More than any of these things, however, it is a visible reminder of what Francis Shaeffer once said (and which is the title of a book he wrote): "He is there, and he is not silent."  Whether it is in the emptiness of a hotel room far from home, or in the absence you can sometimes feel when God seems distant or silent, the tangible Word is a reminder that the One who made the world did not just rest from his work and then leave us be.  He spoke.  He continues to sustain.  He continues to speak into our lives.  The heavens declare the glory of God. The face of Christ shines in a fellow believer.  And the Word is incarnate and weighty in the heft and hue of the printed Word.

I've taken to carrying the digital version of the Bible on my IPhone for ease.  It doesn't quite measure up.  Somehow, as convenient as this can be, its distinctiveness is lost.  It seems more ephemeral, less durable, less weighty.  When I pick up the Gideons Bible, I consider the effort someone had to make to place it there, and I'm reminded of how the Bible alone has saved many people and sustained many more.  For example, I still recall the testimony of Christian singer Barry McGuire, who began his career with the secular Sixties folk group, The New Christy Minstrels, of being alone in a hotel room, despairing of his life, and coming to faith through the words of a Gideons Bible.

He is there, and he is not silent.  Don't take for granted the intimacy and love of a Superior Being, one who needs nothing from us and yet who condescended to speak to us through words.  And then, amazingly, who became the Word living among us.

That book is indeed is a testament.  It bears witness.  And I need that, don't you?

 


A Tender Revelation

When you think of the Book of Revelation, all kinds of fantastical images and sounds spring to mind: creatures with "six wings. . . and full of eyes all around and within," thunder, lightening, torches, thrones, a "pale rider named Death," a moon like blood, stars falling to earth, earthquakes, a sea that becomes bood, locusts that "were like horses prepared for battle," and even a dragon.  And that's just for starters.  Unfortunately, I can never read these chapters without seeing it through the lens of Hal Lindsey's 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, a book that as a teenager frightened me into taking seriously the claims of the Gospel but the theology of which I now reject.  As one reviewer said:  "A generation later, many of its former supporters now see in its pages a complete misreading of Holy Scripture, sensationalistic attempts to correspond Biblical prophecies to current events, and an unhealthy enthusiasm for seeing the world obliterated."  And yet many have bought into and may forever see Revelation in light of the same dispensationalism which reverberates throughout the Left Behind series. 

I'm thankful that Lindsey's book led me to the Gospel.  And I do not fault his intention to awake a sleeping church to the times.  And yet Chapters 4-20 of Revelation are still largely a mystery to me, biblical and even evangelical scholars holding widely varying views of their meaning.  But that's OK. I do not have to understand it all.  I can leave it open.

But in looking at the Book this week, two verses became meaningful, even compassionate, as I considered their import.  The first is in the context of a reference to the "seven golden lampstands," symbolic for the churches, where John says he saw "in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man," (Rev. 1:13).  What a comfort: Christ is among his people, in the midst of the church, whatever it is going through.  He is present.  It connotes an intimacy, a desire to be among us, with us, alongside us.  He says elsewhere "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (Matt. 18:20).  Do you, like me, forget that He is really present?   Not only is He present, as a friend might be present, but unlike friends most of the time, He actually has all the power to do something for me or us or in our midst.  To appropriate this, sometimes I imagine His hand on my shoulder, lightly, as a friend might offer reassurance.

But there's more. Later, to him who perseveres in faith, He promises "to. . . give a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it" (Rev. 2:17b).  Matthew Henry points out that the white stone alludes to the ancient practice of giving a white stone to someone acquitted of guilt; the new name, that of our adoption.  We are declared innocent.  We are welcomed into the family.  We are given a new name shared only between us and Jesus.  This reminded me of how our Ugandan friends will sometimes give each other "pet names," significant and sometimes known only to the giver and the one receiving it.  All this speaks of a high degree of intimacy between Jesus and us.  This too, I forget, treating Jesus at times like a kind but absent friend.

I suspect there is more of this in Revelation, but I'm resting in Chapter Two right now.  Yet reading ahead, I can see that for all its bluster, for all its gloom and doom, one could even find this a tender Revelation, a dark cloak of words threaded with a white string of grace, its message: Be ready.  I will come.  Take heart.  I am with you to the end.

I could stop here and be content.

 


A Singular Empathy

One of the most helpful essays relating to the topic of empathy that I read in the recent issue of The Pedestrian was entitled "Empathy with the Enemy," by Roman Krznaric.  In it the author explores some of the ethical dilemmas and yet personal and social benefits from engaging in what he calls "empathetic imagining" which is, simply put, imagining what it is to be somone other than yourself.  The hope is, of course, that by doing so, by putting yourself in someone else's shoes, you will better understand their concerns and needs, leading not only to mutual understanding but peaceable and more productive relationships.  The ramifications of this kind of empathy for personal relationships, racial and international harmony, and even appropriate aid to the poor should be evident.  Only thing is, it's not so easy.

Krznaric notes that the concept is easily invoked by liberals (a group with which he identifies) in the context of arguments for imagining life from the perspective of the "deprived or marginalized, the voiceless or powerless," and yet he argues that "if empathy is truly to take its place as a central value in contemporary culture, we need to put it to test in the most difficult situations, where it can lead us into a moral maze: into seeming contradictions rather than clarity." In other words, we have to extend our empathy even to those whose actions we disdain or which are morally repugnant to us.

The author should know.  Two visits to Guatemala gave him ample opportunity to discover just how slippery empathy can prove.  In the first visit, he was ensconced in a peasant village where he served as an international human rights monitor (the country was wrapping up 36 years of civil war).  In the next visit he came to interview some of the members of the wealthy, ruling oligarchy, ostensibly as an objective reporter seeking the status of things in the country post-civil war.  These were some of the racially biased who had hired death squads to kill many of the same peasants he had stayed with.  His aim was to discover the oligarchy's outlook, to empathize, not agree with their outlook.  When he interviewed one of the women, she became emotional talking about the imprisonment of her son by rebels.  In that moment, he empathized with someone whose outlook he found repugnant.  He saw her as human: a woman who loved her son and suffered not knowing his fate.  He felt genuine compassion.

The situation embodied what he calls the problem of "empathetic dissent" --- that is, how do you empathize with someone whose views or values you disagree with?  What he found was that such empathizing does not suspend moral judgment.  Rather,  he says "the ability to step into someone else's shoes can place you in a strong position to reason with them and persuade them to change their views.

Reading this I was both convicted at my own lack of empathy and made aware of the cultural forces that make it difficult to do so.  Americans are very self-absorbed.  Our advertising tells us how much we need to be thinking about ourselves.  The public persona we project and are so aware of on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks elevates and seemingly makes important our every move, status change, interests, likes, and dislikes.  Frankly, even as I write this blog post it's tempting (and laughable) to consider the importance of what I write.  How often do I draw back and really consider what others must perceive about anything, how they must feel, and why they have the opinions (even the stupid and obnoxious ones) that they do?

I cannot help but think of this verse from Phillipians 2:4, where Paul says "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."  It is in the context of a whole section which commends the sacrificial example of Christ.  Truly, deeply empathizing, it seems to me, isn't possible without the transforming power of Christ.  For most of us, if we truly empathized with our enemies, we might hate them all the more.  Only Christ can make enemy-lovers out of enemy haters.  He does it by showing us that though we may be different in degree (I haven't killed anyone lately, that is), we are not different in kind.  We all fall short.  We all sin.  We all need redeeming by the only One who can fully and completely empathize with our state and who has the power to remedy it.  His is a singular empathy.  Without his, our's is dead in the water.


The Rest of Home

Pasture "This is the true nature of home.  It is the place of Peace, the shelter, not only from injury, but from all terror, doubt, and confusion."

(John Ruskin, 1856)

That so many people cannot believe in Heaven or, believing, cannot envision its nature, may be because the home that they grew up in bore no semblance of peace, was full of fear or confusion or doubt.  In short, it was more like Hell than Heaven, either in the evils perpetrated there or the very lack of which it stank.  There is no shortage of memoirs that tell of such homes, a plethora of films which record their ills.

The home in which I was reared was no such place. Whether as a child escaping neighborhood bullies, teenager on the short end of love, or college student confused and despairing of my options, home was a refuge for me, a place of acceptance no matter that I did not fit elsewhere, of comforting words when I was worn down by the relentless burdens of the world. I could even do wrong and still come home, my prodigal heart drawn to its peace.

At the age of five, I cut my two-year old sister's hair.  I received a sound spanking.  And yet still I  was served dinner that night, given a warm bed to sleep in, and kissed goodnight as if nothing had happened, all my sin covered over by a loving forgetfulness, as far as the east is from the west to my parents.

A year or so later, I set the top bunk bed in my room on fire playing with matches.  With my then three-year old sister on it.  My parents were drinking coffee in the kitchen.  I calmly told them that the bed was on fire.  My mother grabbed a wet dish rag (that's what we called them), beat the fire out, and then "beat the fire out of me."  Ouch.  And yet still I was given a warm bed to sleep in, a bowl of strawberries in sugar and milk, and kissed goodnight as if nothing had happened, though something had. O dish rag, where is your sting?

I grew up, of course, as did my younger sister, by God's grace unscathed, and came early to the conclusion that my home and all homes were imperfect, that my parents had feet of clay --- but still it was a place of peace, in its best moments a shadow of Heaven.  It wasn't just the rooms and halls and smells and furnishings of that place, of course, though they are indelibly imprinted in every memory, but the people tied to me by blood and commitment --- my mother, my father, my sisters.  That place is lost to me now as a place I can visit.  My father has long since gone Home.  My mother remembers me but can't remember what she did this morning or yesterday, still believes her long-departed mother is still in her home.  And when I visit my mother in her rest home (an old word I still prefer), despite her dementia and the institutional surroundings I am still in some sense coming home.  I shed all pretense, drop back to my natural speech, the language of home, and simply am a son with his mother, famous only for that fact, all of what I have and who I am and who I think I am irrelevant with her.

To disciples who believed that they might be left alone in the world, Jesus said "In my father's house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (Jn. 14:3-4a, ESV).  How comforting that he speaks of a home, of a house with rooms --- a tangible, physical reality, where we can enter into His rest, the rest of Home.

We can be thankful for whatever shadow of Heaven is granted us here, whether in the home in which we were reared or the home we now know or one we have brushed up against.  But if we were raised in one of those hellish homes, there is still this: "I go to prepare a place for you."  There may be no perfect home here, no lasting rest, but one day we'll sit down in a chair in our room in Heaven, put our feet up, look out the window, breathe a contented sigh, and survey a world more familiar and real than the one we have lived in and know without a shadow of doubt that we are Home.



A Carpetbag of Jesus: Getting God Sideways

Since my mother has recently gone to live in a nursing home, my sisters and I have been cleaning out her home of the last 20 years, plowing through perhaps 40 years of notebooks, check registers, canceled checks, documents, photos, memorabilia, and so on.  My mother apparently did not believe in throwing much away.  Anything reusable was saved, from envelopes to place mats to candles to. . . well, you get the picture.  All this in a modest 1600 square foot house.

However, betwixt the exclamations of "Can you believe she. . . saved this, kept this, never threw away this, had this many clothes," and so on, what kept emerging was a sense of who my mother was, not just as mother to me but as an individual, as a person with a unique personality, her own hopes and dreams, her own disappointments, and her own routines and habits.  I better knew her by examining the trail of evidence of her life. You might say she came to me sideways, wrapped up in the leavings of her life. Remember that scene in Mary Poppins where she pulls all manner of things, including a lamp, from her carpetbag?  I felt that way when I began pulling things from my mother's closets, as if they had false bottoms or extended beyond the walls.  And yet the yoke is easy, the burden light; every item I encountered told me more about her, gave me circumstantial evidence of her presence and her life.

All this came in the midst of my reading Paul Alms's article, "God Sideways," in the latest Touchstone. Alms writes about how the the real stuff of church is not only or even primarily what is going on up front, what is being said from the pulpit, but rather how that message is mediated through the smells, sounds, and distractions of the pews, among the congregants.  If we came up in a church with no air conditioning (as I did), then the gospel is "hot," its message bound up in sweat, passion, flapping fans with pictures of Jesus on them, and the second hand of the watch tick-tocking away the time on my father's arm, as I waited for the interminable (and yet only 20 minute) sermon to end.

As Alms points out, "the good news of Jesus Christ is not abstract.  It is not like digital data we download. It comes with skin, it comes in minutes and hours we experience concretely.  It comes dressed in things that do not seem to matter.  But these indifferent things can become significant, moments associated with and attached to the presence of Christ."  What he means is that the gospel is incarnational.  That which originally came embodied in flesh and blood keeps coming to us embodied in our sensory perceptions, in what is going on in the pew --- in the noise of children, in the nodding heads, in the green of trees against blue sky ever so slightly stirring.  The peripherals become incomprehensible or unrooted without the words proclaimed from the pulpit, read from scripture, or said in prayer, and yet it all becomes a rich, multi-sensory experience as we let it settle in.  As Alms says, "Getting God sideways is how the church works. The straight-ahead message of the gospel slips out of the preacher's mouth in his idiosyncratic style and travels through the static of the group, through a thousand competing thoughts and sounds, and is received by a listener who understands it in his own limited way, and yet Christ is proclaimed."  God is present, shared, hidden, sideways --- and yet He is there.

My parents came from a quiet generation, one where the gospel was not so much spoken as lived out in the stuff of life.  They talked very little about themselves and to my memory preached few sermons to their children.  I didn't know until recently that there were married on Christmas Eve in 1947.  I still know nothing of how they met and courted.  My father served in WWII under Patton, crossing North Africa, then Sicily, Italy, France and Luxembourg, where he was wounded.  I knew none of that until recently.  He never spoke of it.  And yet the woman whose possessions I am sifting told me about who she was in all the quotidian details of life, in the clothes she washed, the meals she made, the sacrifices she made for me, the quiet letting go of me to college, marriage, and life away from her home.  The evidence is here, not only in their leavings but in history, in all the acts of love she practiced.

She didn't have to say it.  She didn't have to preach it.  In the end, a few words were all that were necessary to tell me the truth about who she was and who I was and what life was about.  I got all the gospel I needed of her --- sideways.

Last time I visited my mother I was strolling her around the halls and she looked up at me and said, "Have you got a girlfriend, Steve?"  I said "Sure do.  I married her."  (I'm 51 and have been married 29 years.) She's still being mother to her young son.  Then we're sitting looking out the window, the sun on our faces, and with her eyes closed she reaches out and makes as if to hang me something.  She says, "Here, take this."  So I reach down and make as if to take it.  (There's nothing there I can see.)  I said, "I got it."  After a minute or two she says, "I don't know what it was I gave you," and I say "I don't either, but I'll take good care of it, whatever it is."  And she says, "I know you will.  I know you will."

I think I know what she gave me.  It all came to me sideways, a carpetbag full of it.  I hope I can take good care of it and pass it on.  In my own idiosyncratic way I hope it slips out of me and passes through those near and far, laps up against the souls of people unknown.  I don't know how to make that happen. There's no direct way to do it.  If it happens, it happens sideways.  Maybe one day, when my kids are cleaning out my closets, they'll get it too.  And whatever it is they get, I know they'll take good care of it with God's help.


Framing Reality

Cover-23-02 "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

(G.K. Chesterton)

Sometimes wisdom simply leaps off the page, and that's the case with a relatively short piece by Patrick Henry Reardon, entitled "Framers of the Gospel," featured in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone.  In it, Reardon makes the simple yet profound point that a framed gaze at reality, while imposing a limitation, actually enlarges our view of reality --- that is, we actually see more and, I would argue, are more free by virtue of the limitation of the frame we draw around reality.  Reardon draws a comparison between the episodic quality of the Gospels (their nature as a collection of bite-size stories) and framed art and the stage, arguing that both arise from the same impulse: "the need for a concentrated regard in order to contemplate the whole."  Essentially, we can better contemplate the whole, the meta-narrative (big story), by focusing on one mini-narrative at a time.  Reardon says there is a two-fold advantage in this approach: concentration is drawn to a focus, better helping us digest its truth, and the framing encourages humility, a proper sense that the whole truth is much larger and not fully within our grasp (as it would be for God).

I'd go farther than Reardon is able or willing, in the article at least, in two respects.  First, I would point out that this framing of reality is essential not only as a way of seeing but as a way of being and doing. Consider corporate worship.  If a frame is imposed on it, an order, worship is concentrated and given focus.  Far from being less free, it is actually more free in that concentration on God is focused by the forms used.  Or consider a more mundane reality, that of a toddler's playtime.  During rest time we would require our young son to remain in his room, giving him not an entire room of toys to play with but two or three select toys, like blocks, that had multiple uses.  He was more free and more creative, even happy, with those two or three toys than with a roomful of toys. His reality was framed, his imagination stimulated, and his sense of the possible enlarged.

Second, this focus and contrast supplied by a framing of reality is creational.  It is built into the way we are made by God.  Even the first man, Adam, imposed a frame on reality.  He named the animals. We can imagine that he considered their appearance and behavior and, in some sense, tried to give a name to it. Humans have been doing so ever since, not just in taxonomy but in writing songs and poems or painting pictures to try and frame an experience, to draw a focus on a  part of reality in order to enlarge our sense of the whole.  We not only need this framing or ordering, we inevitably crave it.

And yet our cultural distraction, our information saturation, has made it much more difficult to focus. Given the flood of tweets, status updates, blog posts, and television and internet images, we have difficulty settling on one thing, concentrating on a small piece of the whole when we are bombarded with bits of narrative from all over that usurp our attention, that beckons to us, that even appeals to our sense of pride as being someone who is "connected," "always on," "aware."  I think you'd be better off taking a few hours and studying the kinds of trees in your back yard, or meditating on a poem --- places where the not said of reality becomes more and more evident by virtue of what is said..  Truly there is a sense that you see a greater reality by looking deeply at a tree or poem than by surfing 100 websites or reading tweets from the 50 people you are following.  Poet Nikos Kazantzakis gets at this when he says that "Everything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics.  When you see them you do not understand them.  You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars.  It is only years later that you understand."  You need not get so mystical about to get the point: look deeply at something and it will give up a much larger meaning, or at least point to the unknown, if you are patient enough.  And yet we're moving too fast.  Maybe some of the problems we confront prove so intractable because we have so much difficulty focusing, can gather so much information and yet don't know (or don't have the ability to focus on) what it means and how it should be used.

So how much mulling over or reflecting have you done lately?  How often have you sat in one place and thought about one thing for longer than five minutes?  What's the last time you took one story in the Gospels, or even one verse, and turned it over and over in your mind?  Times like that don't come easy and yet the rewards are great.  We see more of what is and more of what is still left to know.  Deep down that reminds us of our creaturely nature and our dependence on an all-knowing God.  That's a good frame on reality.  That's the life we were made for.


Checking Out, Checking In

Being on vacation is in some ways like inhabiting another dimension.  Thoughts of work and the concerns of home impinge.  Emails remind me that life goes on, that bills await payment, work rests in my inbox, and people still have problems, of course.  

I delete emails. 

I absentmindedly can't remember to return calls.  Given that it's three hours later at home, I always seem to have the excuse that it's not a good time.  Really, though, I resent the intrusion, am guarding the space I have.  After all, I'm checking out.

I quit checking Facebook.

I give Twitter a rest.

I am here, not there, and all the problems and concerns of that world will remain for when I return.  I have to remember that.

But it's not such a different world after all.  Sitting on my patio this morning, looking past the wash that I walk in, I can see 50 miles, clear across a city of over one million people, and I read this: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people" (Lam. 1:1).  I know the writer is lamenting a Jerusalem emptied out in exile, and yet looking out across the city I cannot help but feel the writer pointing out toward the city here, feel a tinge of exile myself.  We are not where we belong.  I can vacate my own city but no matter where I am, people are by and large living in exile, emptied out of life with the One who made them.

There are those who say that the desert, mountains, and air here are spiritual. They worship place in a kind of neo-paganism.  Walk a little while in the evening air, stare long enough at the mountains, watch the wildlife around you, and you are tempted to say the same.  And yet the strangeness of the place, its vivid nature, is really a window to the God who made us, holy ground only in the sense that it bears His mark.

It's like the full moon in the sky tonight.  It has no light of its own but simply reflects the light of the sun that it's given. Everything is full of His light.  Everything, even in exile, points to Him.

Rocks really do cry out. The heavens do declare the glory of God.  They pour out speech.  Thy never stop talking, never stop proclaiming that God is great, and good, and will bring all the exiles Home.

A vacation can give you space to have thoughts like that, give you time to check in.


(Get Me Out of This) House of Mirrors

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The last 24 hours has been a trip through a house of mirrors. Everywhere I turn, I see myself, only it's not the carefully cultivated self of my imagination, the person I think I am or hope I am in my best moments. Rather, these mirrors are mirrors of the true, showing me the grotesque, the sinner that I am.

Ha, ha.  It's just a fun house, some would tell me.  That's not really you.  But it is.

No one likes to come face to face with who they really are.  You're perking along, half a decade old, figuring you've got a few things mostly licked, that you're really mostly OK, not perfect, not substantially perfect in fact, but hey you're not all that bad --- God's working on you and making progress.  Not so fast. It only takes a few incidents to peel back the curtain and show you what you're really made of, how far you have to go, how much you are in need of grace.

Yes, it's true.  I'm a clutching, selfish materialist, in love with my stuff.  I always like to think of myself as someone who "lives life with hands open," and yet it only takes a couple of requests and I begin to put the nails in the coffers.  I have all kinds of reasons, sensible reasons, to deny these requests of me.  But the real reason is fear, fear that if I open the door any wider the Mac Truck of need will drive right through and take all I have.  Oh, I despise that image in a mirror.

I sat in my chair a full 10 minutes and looked out the window today, mourning this face in the mirror, useless to my employer.  If anyone had seen me, they would have thought that I was studying some object out the window, but really I was peering in, not out.  Would that it were out.

Where's the exit?  I turn the corner on one sorry image only to confront another.  Is that me?  Angry?  I'm an even-keel person, always pretty calm, rarely losing my temper.  And yet the face in the mirror is one of anger.  Funny thing about anger.  You talk to yourself.  You make up little conversations you might have with the offender, and rehearse little digs you'll make, rack up points.  You think about their demise, how their pride will go before a fall (and how you can help them down that path).  You catch a glimpse of that image out of your eye, the one you are avoiding, and it scares you a little.

I sat in my chair a full 15 minutes on that one.  Stewing.  Stirring the ashes of vengeance which is mine says the Lord, and yet maybe the Lord needs a little help I think.

Sickening.

I went to lunch.  Alone.  I sat at an outdoor cafe, at a table in the sun, the wind almost uncomfortable it was so brisk.  I watched people walk past me.  Could they see it? Could they see how ugly I was?Someway, halfway through my salad, two pieces of bread downed, I was done, or undone at least.  I began to smile, inside anyway, at the humor of it all.  Sometimes the best response to sin is to laugh at its absurdity, at the ways it toys with us.  

It really is a fun house, a house of the absurd.  Or maybe it's the house of truth.  Or maybe it's both.

But I know one thing: I'm just glad to be out of there.